Authors: Margery Allingham
Campion returns from three years work for the War Office in Europe to find that Lugg, his manservant, has brought him an unusual gift: the black silk nightdress-clad body of a dead woman, an apparent suicide. Wanting only to get away to a well-deserved rest, Campion must instead assist Detective Chief Inspector Oates and Superintendent Yeo in unravelling a tangled plot of deception and murder as the war draws to its conclusion.
Margery Allingham was born in London in 1904. She attended the Perse School in Cambridge before returning to London to the Regent Street Polytechnic. Her father â author H. J. Allingham â encouraged her to write, and was delighted when she contributed to her aunt's cinematic magazine,
The Picture Show,
at the age of eight.
Her first novel was published when she was seventeen. In 1928 she published her first detective story,
The White Cottage Mystery,
which had been serialised in the
The following year, in
The Crime at Black Dudley,
she introduced the character who was to become the hallmark of her writing â Albert Campion. Her novels heralded the more sophisticated suspense genre: characterised by her intuitive intelligence, extraordinary energy and accurate observation, they vary from the grave to the openly satirical, whilst never losing sight of the basic rules of the classic detective tale. Famous for her London thrillers, such as
Hide My Eyes
The Tiger in the Smoke,
she has been compared to Dickens in her evocation of the city's shady underworld.
In 1927 she married the artist, journalist and editor Philip Youngman Carter. They divided their time between their Bloomsbury flat and an old house in the village of Tolleshunt D'Arcy in Essex. Margery Allingham died in 1966.
ALSO BY MARGERY ALLINGHAM
IN THE ALBERT CAMPION SERIES
The Crime at Black Dudley
Look to the Lady
Police at the Funeral
Death of a Ghost
Dancers in Mourning
Flowers for the Judge
The Case of the Late Pig
The Fashion in Shrouds
Mr Campion and Others
The Casebook of Mr Campion
More Work for the Undertaker
The Tiger in the Smoke
The Beckoning Lady
Hide My Eyes
The China Governess
The Mind Readers
A Cargo of Eagles
HIS BOOK IS FOR
THE MAN AND
the woman carried the body cautiously up the stairs. Although it was still early evening, the narrow way was grey and shadowy, and it was very cold, colder even than it had been outside amid the thin traffic of a wartime London.
The two who were alive in that grim little group which writhed and breathed so hard in the gloom, were both elderly people. They were an unexpected couple in any situation; the man was a large, blank-faced Cockney without any pretensions and the woman was out of place beside him, her delicate aristocratic grace accentuating both his clumsiness and the horror of her present task.
All they had in common was the job in hand and a sense of nightmare, and as they plodded upward with the dead weight between them their feet trod the carpeted stairs without feeling them and they strained their muscles without noticing the strain.
Mr. Lugg, who was in his disreputable Civil Defence uniform, reflected that he had to hand it to the old girl even if she was a marchioness, she was showing very game.
“One more flight,” he muttered.
“Hush,” said Lady Carados, adding breathlessly, “oh,
we keep her feet off the ground?”
Meanwhile in the apartment above, Mr. Albert Campion, who was in that particular state of ignorance wherein it is downright idiocy to be wise, was taking a warm bath.
He lay in the soothing water utterly at ease for the first time since his long journey home had begun some eight weeks before. For the first time he was entirely happy, and his only worry in the world concerned the possibility of his dropping off to sleep and so missing his train. For a long time he kept perfectly still, his lean body relaxed and content. He had changed a little in the last three years; the sun had bleached his fair hair to whiteness lending him a
physical distinction he had never before possessed. There were new lines in his over-thin face and with their appearance some of his old misleading vacancy of expression had vanished. But nothing had altered the upward drift of his thin mouth nor the engaging astonishment which so often and so falsely appeared in his pale eyes.
Just now he was barely thinking. His mind was ticking over very slowlyâpop pop, pop pop, pop pop. He had just worked out with enormous mental effort that he had fifteen and a half minutes to lie thus, twenty minutes to dress, twenty minutes to potter about remembering the things he might have forgotten, and twenty minutes to catch his train. From his present viewpoint this simple programme possessed beauty, luxury, civilization.
He had been back in London exactly one hour and ten minutes, and as yet had had no time to form any real impression of the changes in the great city. But already it had spread its ancient charm about him and he knew from the very smell of it that it was still safe, still firmly respectable, still obdurately matter of fact. He was immeasurably relieved; from the tales he had heard abroad he had expected worse.
For three years he had been at large on two warring Continents employed on a mission for the Government so secret that he had never found out quite what it was, or at least that was the version of his activities which it seemed most prudent to give at the moment. Meanwhile he was certainly damnably tired.
At this point he thought he heard a curious shuffling noise on the other side of the bathroom wall, but he quietened his over-alert senses by reflecting that he was home again in London where shuffling noises had prosaic explanations. Lying in the water he stirred slightly, moving his hands like fins, and remembering how as a child he had enjoyed playing âsleeping fish' in the bath. Life was very good and very quiet. Six weeks' leave was due, and he was prepared to enjoy it in a leafy peace which yet promised a gentle excitement of its own. However, just now, just at this very moment there was at last time to waste.
He heard the latch of the front door and the subsequent scuffling without undue surprise. He took it that Lugg had got the wire he had sent from the port. Well, that was nice, it would be good to see the old villain who had served him so faithfully if so truculently for so long. He had clearly done his best by the flat, too. The blitzed windows in the bedroom were neatly pasted up with cardboard, and the whole place was cleaner than one might have expected.
Campion was just about to shout a greeting when he became aware of a new, and more unlikely series of noises; swift footsteps raced up the main staircase, the front door shuddered open just as someone on the inside was closing it, there was a muttered expletive, and finally an entirely unfamiliar feminine scream.
Mr. Campion sat up slowly.
Another unfamiliar female voice, but older this time and very close at hand, said pleadingly:
“Be quiet, dear, oh, be quiet.”
Then more scuffling, followed by whispering, and afterwards a second door opening and closing.
Mr. Campion's impulse was to lie down again and to pull the soapsud blanket over his head, but he dismissed the idea as unworthy and clambered out gingerly. Draped in a towel he stood listening. Evidently the Reception Committee, or whatever it was, had moved into the sitting-room across the passage; he could only just distinguish the murmur of voices.
He began to dry himself reluctantly. He was disappointed, of course, not, as he reflected between rubs, was he averse to some small token of welcome on his return, on the contrary he had been looking forward to a reunion with his old friend and knave, but why the man should have thrown a party, and of what it could possibly consist, he could not imagine.
He had no dressing-gown in the bathroom, and so, uncomfortably girt about with towels, he tiptoed into the hall, intending to fetch one from the bedroom. The sitting-room door was closed, but he could hear the steady whisper of voices within. He opened the bedroom door very quietly
and made straight for the hanging cupboard. Since most of the window space was boarded up, the room was in semi-darkness, and he found what he sought before he noticed anything unusual. It was when he turned again and was tying the girdle tightly about his lean ribs that he first saw the shape on the bed.
His first impression was that it was a roll of carpet which lay there so stiffly, and he was annoyed with himself for being so startled by it; but as he came forward to lean over the foot of the bed he saw the thing for what it was, and a wave of mingled incredulity and apprehension passed over him, leaving him suddenly cold.
It was a woman, and she was dead. There was no possible question about it. In life she had been a birdy little creature, bright-eyed no doubt, and even pretty in a faded, possibly over-excitable fashion, but now her eyes were hidden, her mouth was set in a dreadful narrow O, and the high, thin bone of her nose rose like a knife-blade about to cut through the livid skin.
She was clad in a black silk nightdress under a long grey squirrel coat, while on her bare feet hung little wedge shoes of grey-and-black leather, very square and serviceable. One of her legs was twisted unnaturally, the knee turned outwards and raised an inch or so from the coverlet on which she lay. She was dead, rigor was well advanced, and her hands folded on her breast looked formal and absurd.
Campion stood staring at her blankly; she was a complete stranger to him. Moreover, ten minutes before when he had turned on his bath she had not been there. Whoever had brought her was presumably in the next room now, whispering. The first definite thought which reached him amid the firework display of question marks in his mind was that whatever had happened, whoever this pathetic little bundle might turn out to have been, he must not permit her to prevent him catching his train. That train was important. The reward it promised him had been most hardly earned.
All the same the present situation could hardly be ignored. Twitching his bright dressing-gown more tightly
round him he stepped lightly down the passage, and opened the sitting-room door. He did not enter it, but stood back taking the elementary precaution by force of habit.
“Oh, my God!”
The cry which greeted the silent swinging door was purely superstitious. He recognized the panic note instantly, and walked in, to find himself confronted by three frightened people: Lugg, in Heavy Rescue uniform, and two of the most striking women he had ever seen in his life.