IN his schooldays Grant had learned that if he was stumped by a problem it paid to leave it alone for a while. A proposition that had seemed insoluble the night before was simple to the point of being obvious in the light of morning. This was a lesson that he learned for himself and consequently never forgot, and he took it with him both into his personal life and into his work. Whenever he reached deadlock he transferred his attention. So now, although he did not follow Bryce’s advice about the daily ritual, he did give heed to his words about ignoring ‘the rumblings of his stomach’. Where the Searle affair was concerned he had reached deadlock, so he withdrew his attention and thought upon Tom Thumb. The current Tom Thumb being an ‘Arab’ potentate who had lived at a Strand hotel for a fortnight, and had disappeared without the formality of paying his bill.
The daily routine, a routine where there was always more work than men to do it, sucked him back into its vortex, and Salcott St Mary disappeared from the forefront of his mind.
Then, on a morning six days later, his mind flung it back at him.
He was walking along the south pavement of the Strand on his way to lunch in Maiden Lane, pleased with the report that he was going to give Bryce when he went back to the Yard, and wondering idly at the large display of women’s shoes in a street as unpopular with women as the Strand. The thought of women’s shoes reminded him of Dora Siggins and the slippers she had bought for the dance, and he smiled a little to himself as he began to cross the street, remembering her vitality and her chatter and her friendly sharpness. She had nearly left the shoes behind after all, he remembered; even after missing a bus home in order to buy them. They had been lying on the seat because they wouldn’t fit into her packed shopping bag, and he had had to point them out to her. An untidy parcel in cheap brown paper, with the heels ——
He stopped dead.
A taxi driver, his face contorted with rage and fright, yelled something into his ear. Brakes screamed as a lorry came to a halt at his elbow. A policeman, hearing the yelling brakes and the protests, made slow but purposeful movements in his direction. But Grant did not wait. He flung himself against the next approaching taxi, wrenched the door open, and said ‘Scotland Yard and quick’ to the driver.
‘Exhibitionist!’ said the driver, and chugged away to the Embankment.
But Grant did not hear him. His mind was busy on the old sucked-dry problem that suddenly seemed so new and exciting now that he had taken it out again. At the Yard he looked for Williams and when he had found him he said: ‘Williams, remember saying on the telephone that all your Wickham notes were good for was the wastepaper basket? And I said never to destroy notes.’
‘I remember,’ Williams said. ‘When I was in town picking up Benny Skoll and you were at Salcott dragging the river.’
‘You didn’t by any chance take my advice, did you?’
‘Of course I took your advice, sir. I always take your advice.’
‘You have those notes somewhere?’
‘I have them right here in my desk.’
‘May I see them?’
‘Certainly, sir. Though I don’t know if you can read them.’
It was certainly not easy. When Williams wrote a report it was in a faultless schoolboy script, but when making notes for his own use he indulged in a hieroglyphic shorthand of his own.
Grant flipped over the pages looking for what he wanted.
‘“The 9.30 Wickham to Crome”,’ he murmured. ‘“The 10.5 Crome to Wickham. The 10.15 Wickham to Crome.” ‘M. ‘M. “Farm lane: old”—— old what and child?’
‘Old labourer and child. I didn’t detail what they had in the buses to start with. Just what they picked up on the road.’
‘Yes, yes; I know; I understand. “Long Leat crossroads.” Where is that?’
‘It’s a “green” place, a sort of common, on the outskirts of Wickham, where there’s a collection of Fair stuff. A merry-go-round and things.’
‘I remember. “Two roundabout men, known.” Is it “known”?’
‘Yes; known to the conductor personally from other journeys.’
‘“Woman going to Warren Farm, known.” What comes after that, Williams?’
Williams translated to him what came after that.
Grant wondered what Williams would think if he flung his arms round him and embraced him, after the fashion of Association Footballers to successful goal shooters.
‘May I keep this for the moment?’ he asked.
He could keep it for good, Williams said. It wasn’t likely to be much good now. Unless — unless, of course ——
Grant could see the dawning realisation that this sudden interest in his notes must come from more than academic curiosity on Grant’s part; but he did not wait to answer the coming question. He went to see Bryce.
‘It’s my belief,’ Bryce said, glaring at him, ‘that the lower ranks in this institution prolong hotel cases so that they can sit in the back room with the manager and be given drinks on the house.’
Grant ignored his libellous pleasantry.
‘Is this a routine report before you sit down to a nice leisurely lunch, or have you something to tell me?’
‘I think I’ve got something that will please you, sir.’
‘It will have to be very good to please me today, as perhaps you’ve noticed.’
‘I’ve discovered that he had a passion for cherry brandy.’
‘Very interesting, I must say. Fascinatingly interesting! And what good do you think ——’ A wonderful thought suddenly brightened the bleak small eye. He looked at Grant, as one colleague to another. ‘No!’ he said. ‘Not Hamburg Willy!’
‘Looks like it, sir. It has all the earmarks; and he’d make a very good Arab with that Jewish profile of his.’
‘Hamburg! Well, well! What did he get out of it that was worth the risk?’
‘Soft living for a fortnight; and some fun.’
‘It’s going to be expensive fun. I suppose you’ve no idea where he can have skipped to?’
‘Well, I remembered that he has been living with Mabs Hankey, and Mabs is doing a turn at the Acacias in Nice this spring; so I spent most of the morning on the telephone and I find that our Willy, or what I take to be our Willy, is staying there as Monsieur Goujon. What I came to ask, sir, was if, now that it is routine, someone else could take over the extradition and all that and leave me free for a day or two to do something else.’
‘What do you want to do?’
‘I’ve got a new idea about the Searle case.’
‘Now, Grant!’ Bryce said, in warning.
‘It’s too new’—‘and too silly,’ he added to himself —‘to talk about, but I would very much like to spend a little time on it and see if it works out, sir.’
‘Well, I suppose, after the cherry brandy, you think I can’t very well refuse you.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘But if it doesn’t look like panning out, I hope you’ll drop it. There’s plenty of work right here without you running after rainbows and pots of gold.’
So Grant walked out of the Superintendent’s room in pursuit of his pot of gold, and the first thing he did was to go to his own room and take out the report that the San Francisco police had sent them about Searle. He studied it for a long time, and then sent a polite request to the police of Jobling, Conn.
Then he remembered that he had not yet had lunch. He wanted quiet in which to think, so he put the precious sheet of paper into his wallet and went out to his favourite pub, where the rush would be over and they would manage to scrape up something for him. He still did not know what in that account of Searle’s life in America had rung a bell in his mind when he had first read it. But he was beginning to have an idea as to what kind of thing it was that had rung that bell.
As he was walking out of the pub after lunch he knew what it might have been.
He went back to the Yard and consulted a reference book.
Yes, it was that.
He took out the San Francisco report and compared it with the entry in the reference book.
He was jubilant.
He had the important thing. The thing he needed to stand on. He had the connection between Searle and Walter Whitmore.
He rang up Marta Hallard, and was told that she was rehearsing for Faint Heart. She would be at the Criterion this afternoon.
Feeling ridiculously like a bubble — so help me, you could bounce me like a ball, he thought — he floated up to Piccadilly Circus. I feel just the way Tommy Thrupp looked last Sunday morning, he thought. Twice as large as life, with lightning shooting out of my head like toasting-forks.
But the Criterion in the throes of a rehearsal afternoon soon reduced him to life-size and brought his feet back on to the ground.
He walked in through the foyer, stepped over the symbolical barrier of a draped cord, and went down the stairs into the earth without interference from anyone. Perhaps they think I look like an author, he thought, and wondered who had written Faint Heart. No one ever did know who had written a play. Playwrights must lead blighted lives. Fifty to one, on an actuary’s reckoning, against their play running more than three weeks; and then no one even noticed their name on the programme.
And something like a thousand to one against any play ever getting as far as rehearsals even. He wondered whether the author of Faint Heart was aware that he was one in a thousand, or whether he was just sure of it.
Somewhere in the bowels of the earth he came on the elegant little box that was the Criterion’s auditorium; a little ghostly in the cold light of unshaded electrics, but reticent and well-bred. Various dim shapes lay about in the stalls, and no one made any move to ask his business.
Marta, alone on the stage with a horse-hair sofa and a scared-looking young man, was saying: ‘But I must lie on the sofa, Bobby darling. It’s a waste of my legs if I just sit. Everyone looks the same from the knees down.’
‘Yes, Marta, you are right, of course,’ said Bobby, who was the dim figure prowling up and down in front of the orchestra pit.
‘I don’t want to alter your conception in any way, Bobby, but I do think ——’
‘Yes, Marta dear, you are right, of course, so right. No, of course it won’t make any difference. No, I assure you. It really is all right. It’ll look grand.’
‘Of course it may be difficult for Nigel ——’
‘No, Nigel can come round behind you before he says his line. Try it, Nigel, will you.’
Marta draped herself over the horse-hair and the scared-looking boy went away and made his entrance. He made his entrance nine times. ‘Well, it’s coming,’ Bobby said, letting him away with the ninth.
Someone in the stalls went out and came back with cups of tea.
Nigel said his line above the sofa, to the right of the sofa, to the left of the sofa, and without relation to the sofa at all.
Someone came into the stalls and collected the empty cups.
Grant moved over to a lonely lounger and asked: ‘When do you think I shall be able to speak to Miss Hallard?’
‘No one will be able to speak to her if she has much more of Nigel today.’
‘I have very important business with her.’
‘You the clothes man?’
Grant said that he was a personal friend of Miss Hallard’s and must talk to her for a few moments. He wouldn’t keep her longer than that.
‘Oh.’ The dim figure crawled away and consulted with another. It was like some muffled ritual.
The consulted one detached himself from the group of shadows to which he belonged and came over to Grant. He introduced himself as the stage-manager, and asked what exactly it was that Grant wanted. Grant said that at the very first opportunity would someone tell Miss Hallard that Alan Grant was here and wanted to speak to her for a moment.
This worked; and during the next pause, the stage-manager crept on to the stage and bending apologetically over Marta murmured something in a wood-pigeon undertone.
Marta got up from the couch and came down to the edge of the stage, shading her eyes in an effort to see beyond the lights into the dark auditorium.
‘Are you there, Alan?’ she said. ‘Come through the pass door, will you? Show him where it is, someone.’
She came to meet him at the pass door and was plainly glad to see him. ‘Come and have a cup of tea in the wings with me while the young lovers get on with it. Thank God that I shall never again have to be one of a pair of young lovers! The theatre’s most boring convention. You’ve never come to rehearsal before, Alan! What moved you to it?’
‘I would like to say that it was intellectual curiosity, but I’m afraid it is just business. You can help me, I think.’
She helped him enormously; and never once asked what these questions might mean.
‘We haven’t had that dinner with your Sergeant Williams,’ she said as she went away to make the young lovers look like amateurs and wish that they had gone on the land.
‘If you wait for a week or so, Sergeant Williams and I may have a story to tell you.’
‘Splendid. I’ve earned it, I feel. I’ve been so good and discreet.’
‘You’ve been wonderful,’ he said, and went away out the back way into the lane with a slight recurrence of the jubilation that had floated him down the stairs at his entrance.
Armed with the information Marta had given him, he went to Cadogan Gardens and interviewed the housekeeper of some furnished flats.
‘Oh, yes, I remember,’ she said. ‘They ran about a lot together. Oh, no, she didn’t stay here. These are bachelor flats; I mean, flats for one. But she was around a lot.’
And by that time London was shutting up shop for the night and there was nothing more he could do until the police of Jobling, Conn., supplied him with the information he had asked for. So he went home early for once, had a light supper, and went to bed. He lay for a long time working it out in his mind. Working out the details. Working out the wherefore.
Toby Tullis had wanted to know what made Leslie Searle tick; and Grant, too, lying with his eyes on the ceiling, unmoving for an hour at a time, was looking for the mainspring of Leslie Searle’s mind.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01