Read Night at the Vulcan Online

Authors: Ngaio Marsh

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #Mystery fiction, #England, #Traditional British, #Police - England, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)

Night at the Vulcan

BOOK: Night at the Vulcan
Night at the Vulcan
( Roderick Alleyn - 16 )
Ngaio Marsh

“Gas!” Parry Percival said under his breath. Martyn, who thought the Doctor was doing well, glanced indignantly at Parry and was astonished to see that he looked frightened. “ ‘—therefore,’ ” the Doctor was saying arrogantly, “ ‘to beg will not become me—’ ”

“Gas!” said an imperative voice off-stage and someone else ran noisily round the back of the set.

And then Martyn smelled it. Gas…

Ngaio Marsh
Night at the Vulcan


The Management and Company of

The New Zealand Student Players

of 1949 in love and gratitude


Cast of Characters


of the Vulcan Theatre

Martyn Tarne

Bob Grantley,
business manager

Fred Badger,

Clem Smith,

Bob Cringle,
dresser to
Adam Poole

Adam Poole,

Helena Hamilton,
leading lady

Clark Bennington,
her husband

Gay Gainsford,
his niece

J. G. Darcey,
character actor

Parry Percival,

Jacques Doré,
designer and assistant to
Adam Poole

Dr. John James Rutherford,


of the Criminal Investigation Department, New Scotland Yard

Chief Detective-Inspector



finger-print expert


P. C. Lord
Michael Lamprey

Dr. Curtis

Chapter I

As she turned into Carpet Street the girl wondered at her own obstinacy. To what a pass it had brought her, she thought. She lifted first one foot and then the other, determined not to drag them. They felt now as if their texture had changed: their bones, it seemed, were covered by sponge and burning wires.

A clock in a jeweller’s window gave the time as twenty-three minutes to five. She knew by the consequential scurry of its second-hand that it was alive. It was surrounded by other clocks that made mad dead statements of divergent times as if, she thought, to set before her the stages of that day’s fruitless pilgrimage. Nine o’clock, the first agent. Nine thirty-six, the beginning of the wait for auditions at the Unicorn; five minutes past twelve, the first dismissal. “Thank you, Miss — ah— Thank you, dear. Leave your name and address. Next, please.” No record of her flight from the smell of restaurants, but it must have been about ten to two, a time registered by a gilt carriage-clock in the corner, that she had climbed the stairs to Garnet Marks’s Agency on the third floor. Three o’clock exactly at the Achilles where the auditions had already closed, and the next hour in and out of film agencies. “Leave your picture if you like, dear. Let you know if there’s anything.” Always the same. As punctual as time itself. The clocks receded, wobbled, enlarged themselves and at the same time spread before their dials a tenuous veil. Beneath the arm of a bronze nude that brandished an active swinging dial, she caught sight of a face: her own. She groped in her bag, and presently in front of the mirrored face a hand appeared and made a gesture at its own mouth with the stub of a lipstick. There was a coolness on her forehead, something pressed heavily against it. She discovered that this was the shop-window.

Behind the looking-glass was a man who peered at her from the shop’s interior. She steadied herself with her hand against the window, lifted her suitcase and turned away.

The Vulcan Theatre was near the bottom of the street. Although she did not at first see its name above the entry, she had, during the past fortnight, discovered a sensitivity to theatres. She was aware of them at a distance. The way was downhill: her knees trembled and she resisted with difficulty an impulse to break into a shamble. Among the stream of faces that approached and sailed past there were now some that, on seeing hers, sharpened into awareness and speculation. She attracted notice.

The stage-door was at the end of an alleyway. Puddles of water obstructed her passage and she did not altogether avoid them. The surface of the wall was crenellated and damp.

“She knows,” a rather shrill uncertain voice announced inside the theatre, “but she
be told.” A second voice spoke unintelligibly. The first voice repeated its statement with a change of emphasis: “She
but she mustn’t be
,” and after a further interruption added dismally: “Thank you very much.”

Five young women came out of the stage-door and it was shut behind them. She leant against the wall as they passed her. The first two muttered together and moved their shoulders petulantly, the third stared at her and at once she bent her head. The fourth passed by quickly with compressed lips. She kept her head averted and heard, but did not see, the last girl halt beside her.

“Well, for God’s sake!” She looked up and saw, for the second time that day, a too-large face, over-painted, with lips that twisted downwards, tinted lids, and thickly mascaraed lashes.

She said: “I’m late, aren’t I?”

“You’ve had it, dear. I gave you the wrong tip at Marks’s. The show here, with the part I told you about, goes on this week. They were auditioning for a tour— ‘That’ll be all for to-day, ladies, thank you. What’s the hurry, here’s your hat!’ For what it’s worth, it’s all over.”

“I lost my way,” she said faintly.

“Too bad.” The large face swam nearer. “Are you all right?” it demanded. She made a slight movement of her head. “A bit tired. All right, really.”

“You look shocking. Here: wait a sec. Try this.”

“No, no. Really. Thank you so much but—”

“It’s O.K. A chap who travels for a French firm gave it to me. It’s marvellous stuff: cognac. Go

A hand steadied her head. The cold mouth of the flask opened her lips and pressed against her teeth. She tried to say: “I’ve had nothing to eat,” and at once was forced to gulp down a burning stream. The voice encouraged her: “Do you a power of good. Have the other half.”

She shuddered, gasped and pushed the flask away. “No, please!”

“Is it doing the trick?”

“This is wonderfully kind of you. I am so grateful. Yes, I think it must be doing the trick.”

“Gra-a-a-nd. Well, if you’re sure you’ll be O.K…”

“Yes, indeed. I don’t even know your name.”

“Trixie O’Sullivan.”

“I’m Martyn Tarne.”

“Look nice in the programme, wouldn’t it? If there’s nothing else I can do…”

“Honestly. I’ll be fine.”

“You look better,” Miss O’Sullivan said doubtfully. “We may run into each other again. The bloody round, the common task.” She began to move away. “I’ve got a date, actually, and I’m running late.”

“Yes, of course. Good-bye, and thank you.”

“It’s open in front. There’s a seat in the foyer. Nobody’ll say anything. Why not sit there for a bit?” She was half-way down the alley. “Hope you get fixed up,” she said. “God, it’s going to rain. What a life!”

“What a life,” Martyn Tarne echoed, and tried to sound gay and ironic.

“I hope you’ll be all right. ’Bye.”

“Good-bye and thank you.”

The alley was quiet now. Without moving she took stock of herself. Something thrummed inside her head and the tips of her fingers tingled but she no longer felt as if she were going to faint. The brandy glowed at the core of her being, sending out ripples of comfort. She tried to think what she should do. There was a church, back in the Strand: she ought to know its name. One could sleep there, she had been told, and perhaps there would be soup. That would leave two and fourpence for to-morrow: all she had. She lifted her suitcase — it was heavier than she had remembered — and walked to the end of the alleyway. Half a dozen raindrops plopped into a puddle. People hurried along the footpath with upward glances and opened their umbrellas. As she hesitated, the rain came down suddenly and decisively. She turned towards the front of the theatre and at first thought it was shut. Then she noticed that one of the plate-glass doors was ajar.

She pushed it open and went in.

The Vulcan was a new theatre, fashioned from the shell of an old one. Its foyer was an affair of geranium-red leather, chromium steel and double glass walls housing cacti. The central box-office, marked reserved tickets only, was flanked by doors and beyond them, in the comers, were tubular steel and rubber-foam seats. She crossed the heavily carpeted floor and sat in one of these. Her feet and legs, released from the torment of supporting and moving her body, throbbed ardently.

Facing Martyn, on a huge easel, was a frame of photographs under a printed legend:


Opening at this theatre




A New Play




She stared at two large familiar faces and four strange smaller ones. Adam Poole and Helena Hamilton: those were famous faces. Monstrously enlarged, they had looked out at the New Zealand and Australian public from hoardings and from above cinema entrances. She had stood in queues many times to see them, separately and together. They were in the centre, and surrounding them were Clark Bennington with a pipe and stick and a look of faded romanticism in his eyes, J. G. Darcey with pince-nez and hair
en brosse
, Gay Gainsford, young and intense, and Parry Percival, youngish and dashing. The faces swam together and grew dim.

It was very quiet in the foyer and beginning to get dark. On the other side of the entrance doors the rain drove down slantways, half-blinding her vision of homeward-bound pedestrians and the traffic of the street beyond them. She saw the lights go on in the top of a bus, illuminating the passive and remote faces of its passengers. The glare of headlamps shone pale across the rain. A wave of loneliness, excruciating in its intensity, engulfed Martyn and she closed her eyes. For the first time since her ordeal began, panic rose in her throat and sickened her. Phrases drifted with an aimless rhythm on the tide of her desolation: “You’re sunk, you’re sunk, you’re utterly sunk, you asked for it, and you’ve got it. What’ll happen to you now?”

She was drowning at night in a very lonely sea. She saw lights shine on some unattainable shore. Pieces of flotsam bobbed indifferently against her hands. At the climax of despair, metallic noises, stupid and commonplace, set up a clatter in her head.

Martyn jerked galvanically and opened her eyes. The whirr and click of her fantasy had been repeated behind an obscured-glass wall on her left. Light glowed beyond the wall and she was confronted by the image of a god, sand-blasted across the surface of the glass and beating at a forge under the surprising supervision, it appeared, of Melpomene and Thalia. Further along, a notice in red light, dress circle and stalls, jutted out from an opening. Beyond the hammer-blows of her heart a muffled voice spoke peevishly.

“… not much use to
. What? Yes, I know, old boy, but that’s not the point.”

The voice seemed to listen. Martyn thought: “This is it. In a minute I’ll be turned out.”

“… something pretty bad,” the voice said irritably. “She’s gone to hospital… They
so but nobody’s turned up… Well, you know what she’s like, old boy, don’t you? We’ve been snowed under all day and
haven’t been able to do anything about it… auditions for the northern tour of the old piece… yes, yes, that’s all fixed but… Look, another thing: the
wants a story and pictures for this week… yes, on stage. In costume. Nine-thirty in the morning and everything still in the boxes… Well, can’t you think of
?… Who?… Oh, God, I’ll give it a pop. All right, old boy, thanks.”

To Martyn, dazed with brandy and sleep, it was a distortion of a day-dream. Very often had she dreamt herself into a theatre where all was confusion because the leading actress had laryngitis and the understudy was useless. She would present herself modestly: “I happen to know the lines. I could perhaps…” The sudden attentiveness, when she began to speak the lines… the opening night… the grateful tears streaming down the boiled shirts of the management… the critics… no image had been too gross for her.

“Eileen?” said the voice. “Thank God! Listen, darling, it’s Bob Grantley here. Listen, Eileen, I want you to do something terribly kind. I know it’s asking a hell of a lot but I’m in trouble and you’re my last hope. Helena’s dresser’s ill. Yes, indeed, poor old Tansley. Yes, I’m afraid so. Just this afternoon, and we haven’t been able to raise anybody. First dress rehearsal tomorrow night and a photograph call in the morning and nothing unpacked or anything. I know what a good soul you are and I wondered… Oh, God! I see. Yes, I see. No, of course. Oh, well, never mind. I know you would. Yes. ’Bye.”

Silence. Precariously alone in the foyer, she meditated an advance upon the man beyond the glass wall and suppressed a dreadful impulse in herself towards hysteria. This was her day-dream in terms of reality. She must have slept longer than she had thought. Her feet were sleeping still. She began to test them, tingling and pricking, against the floor. She could see her reflection in the front doors, a dingy figure with a pallid face and cavernous shadows for eyes.

The light behind the glass wall went out. There was, however, still a yellow glow coming through the box-office door. As she got to her feet and steadied herself, the door opened.

“I believe,” she said, “you are looking for a dresser.”

As he had stopped dead in the lighted doorway she couldn’t see the man clearly but his silhouette was stocky and trim.

He said with what seemed to be a mixture of irritation and relief: “Good Lord, how long have you been here?”

“Not long. You were on the telephone. I didn’t like to interrupt.”

“Interrupt!” he ejaculated as if she talked nonsense. He looked at his watch, groaned, and said rapidly: “You’ve come about this job? From Mrs. Greenacres, aren’t you?”

She wondered who Mrs. Greenacres could be? An employment agent? She hunted desperately for the right phrase, the authentic language.

“I understood you required a dresser and I would be pleased to apply.” Should she have added “sir”?

“It’s for Miss Helena Hamilton,” he said rapidly. “Her own dresser who’s been with her for years — for a long time — has been taken ill. I explained to Mrs. Greenacres. Photograph call for nine in the morning and first dress rehearsal to-morrow night. We open on Thursday. The dressing’s heavy. Two quick changes and so on. I suppose you’ve got references?”

Her mouth was dry. She said: “I haven’t brought—” and was saved by the telephone bell. He plunged back into the office and she heard him shout “Vulcan!” as he picked up the receiver. “Grantley, here,” he said. “Oh, hullo, darling. Look, I’m desperately sorry, but I’ve been held up or I’d have rung you before. For God’s sake apologize for me. Try and keep them going till I get there. I know, I know. Not a smell of one until—” The voice became suddenly muffled: she caught isolated words. “I think so… yes, I’ll ask… yes… Right. ’Bye, darling.”

He darted out, now wearing a hat and struggling into a raincoat. “Look,” he said, “Miss—”


“Miss Tarne. Can you start right away? Miss Hamilton’s things are in her dressing-room. They need to be unpacked and hung out to-night. There’ll be a lot of pressing. The cleaners have been in but the room’s not ready. You can finish in the morning but she wants the things that can’t be ironed — I wouldn’t know — hung out. Here are the keys. We’ll see how you get on and fix up something definite to-morrow if you suit. The night-watchman’s there. He’ll open the room for you. Say I sent you. Here!”

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