Authors: Margery Allingham
Val looked up in surprise.
âAbout people walking out into the blue?'
âYes,' he said and smiled at her again. âI've heard of quite half a dozen cases in my time. It's quite understandable, of course, but every time it crops up it gives one a jolt,
a new vision, like putting on a pair of long-sighted spectacles.'
Val was visibly puzzled. She looked very sane sitting up and watching him with something like concern in her eyes.
âHow do you mean? What happened to him?'
Dell laughed. He was embarrassed and glanced at Campion for support.
âWell,' he said, the colour in his face making his eyes more vivid, âwe all do get the feeling that we'd like to walk out, don't we? I mean, we all feel at times an insane impulse to vanish, to abandon the great rattling caravan we're driving and walk off down the road with nothing but our own weight to carry. It's not always a question of concrete responsibilities; it's ambitions and conventions and especially affections which seem to get too much at moments. One often feels one'd like to ditch them all and just walk away. The odd thing is that so few of us do, and so when one hears of someone actually succumbing to that most familiar impulse one gets a sort of personal jolt. Portland-Smith is probably selling vacuum-cleaners in Philadelphia by now.'
Val shook her head.
âWomen don't feel like that,' she said. âNot alone.'
Mr Campion felt there might be something in this observation, but he was not concerning himself with the abstract just then.
Months of careful investigation had led him late the previous afternoon to a little estate in Kent where the young Portland-Smith had spent a summer holiday at the age of nine. During the past ten years the old house had been deserted and had fallen into disrepair, creepers and brambles making of the garden a sleeping beauty thicket. There in a natural den in the midst of a shrubbery, the sort of hideout that any nine-year-old would cherish for ever as his own private place, Mr Campion had found the thirty-eight-year-old Portland-Smith, or all that was left of him after three years. The skeleton had been lying face downward, the left arm pillowing the head and the knees drawn up in a feather-bed of dried leaves.
VAL'S OFFICE WAS
one of the more original features of Papendeik's new establishment in Park Lane. Reynarde, who had been responsible for the transformation of the mansion, had indulged in one of his celebrated âstrokes of genius' in its construction, and Colin Greenleaf's photographs of the white wrought-iron basket of a studio slung under the centre cupola above the well of the grand staircase had appeared in all the more expensive illustrated periodicals at the time of the move.
In spite of its affected design the room was proving unexpectedly useful, much to everyone's relief, for its glass walls afforded not only a view of the visitors' part of the building but a clear vision down the two main workshop corridors and permitted Lady Papendeik to keep an eye on her house.
Although it was technically Val's own domain and contained a drawing-table, Marthe Papendeik sat there most of the day âin the midst of her web', as Rex had once said in a fit of petulance, âlooking like a spider, seeing itself a queen bee'.
When Marthe Lafranc had come to London in the days when Victorian exuberance was bursting through its confining laces and drawing its breath for the skyrocketing and subsequent crash which were to follow, she had been an acute French business woman, hard and brittle as glass and volatile as ether. Her evolution had been accomplished by Papendeik, the great artist. He had taken her as if she had been a bale of tinsel cloth and had created from her something quite unique and individual to himself. âHe taught me how to mellow,' she said once with a tenderness which was certainly not Gallic, âthe Grand Seigneur.'
At sixty she was a small, dark, ugly woman with black silk hair, a lifted face and the gift of making a grace of every fold she wore. She was at her little writing-table making great illegible characters with a ridiculous pen when Mr
Campion wandered in after lunch and she greeted him with genuine welcome in her narrow eyes.
âThe little Albert,' she said. âMy dear, the ensemble! Very distinguished. Turn round. Delightful. That is the part of a man one remembers always with affection, his back from the shoulders to the waist. Is Val still on the roof with that mechanic?'
Mr Campion seated himself and beamed. They were old friends and without the least disrespect he always thought she looked like a little wet newt, she was so sleek and lizard-like with her sharp eyes and swift movements.
âI rather liked him,' he said, âbut I felt a little superfluous, so I came down.'
Tante Marthe's bright eyes rested for a moment on two mannequins who were talking together some distance down the southern corridor. The glass walls of the room were sound-proof, so there was no means of telling if they were actually saying the things to each other which appearances would suggest, but when one of them caught sight of the little figure silhouetted against the brightness of the further wall there was a hurried adjournment.
Lady Papendeik shrugged her shoulders and made a note of two names on her blotting-pad.
âVal is in love with that man,' she remarked. âHe is very masculine. I hope it is not merely a most natural reaction. We are too many women here. There is no “body” in the place.'
Mr Campion shied away from the subject.
âYou don't like women, Tante Marthe?'
âMy dear, it is not a question of liking.' The vehemence in her deep, ugly voice startled him. âOne does not dislike the half of everything. You bore me, you young people, when you talk about one sex or the other, as if they were separate things. There is only one human entity and that is a man and a woman. The man is the silhouette, the woman is the detail. The one often spoils or makes the other. But apart they are so much material. Don't be a fool.'
She turned over the sheet of paper on which she had been writing and drew a little house on it.
you like him?' she demanded suddenly, shooting a direct and surprisingly youthful glance at him.
âYes,' he said seriously, âyes. He's a personality and a curiously simple chap, but I liked him.'
âThe family would raise no difficulty?'
He began to laugh.
âDarling, you're slipping back through the ages, aren't you?'
Lady Papendeik smiled at herself.
âIt's marriage, my dear,' she confided. âWhere marriage is concerned, Albert, I am still French. It is so much better in France. There marriage is always the contract and nobody forgets that, even in the beginning. It makes it so proper. Here no one thinks of his signature until he wants to cross it out.'
Mr Campion stirred uneasily.
âI don't want to be offensive,' he murmured, âbut I think all this is a bit premature.'
âAh.' To his relief she followed him instantly. âI wondered. Perhaps so. Very likely. We will forget it. Why are you here?'
âCome about a body.' His tone was diffident. âNothing indelicate or bad for business, naturally. I want to meet Georgia Wells.'
Tante Marthe sat up.
âGeorgia Wells!' she said. âOf course! I could not think if Portland-Smith was the name of the man or not. Have you seen the evening paper?'
âOh, Lord, have they got it already?' He took up the early racing edition from the desk and turned it over. In the Stop Press he found a little paragraph in blurred, irregular type.
SKELETON IN BUSHES. Papers found near a skeleton of a man discovered in the shrubbery of a house near Wellferry, Kent, suggest that body may be that of Mr Richard Portland-Smith, who disappeared from his home nearly three years ago.
He refolded the paper and smiled at her wryly.
âYes, well, that's a pity,' he said.
Lady Papendeik was curious, but years of solid experience had taught her discretion.
âIs it a professional affair for you?'
âI found the poor chap.'
âAh.' She sat nibbling her pen, her small back straight and her inquisitive eyes fixed upon his face. âIt is undoubtedly the body of the fiancÃ©?'
âOh yes, it's Portland-Smith all right. Tante Marthe, was that engagement on or off when he vanished? Do you remember?'
âOn,' said the old lady firmly. âRamillies had appeared upon the scene, you understand, but Georgia was still engaged. How long after he disappeared did the wretched man die? Can you tell that?'
âNot from the state of the body . . . at least I shouldn't think so. It must have been fairly soon, but I don't think any pathologist could swear to it within a month or so. However, I fancy the police will be able to pin it down, because of the fragments of the clothes. He seems to have been in evening dress.'
Tante Marthe nodded. She looked her full age and her lips moved in a little soundless murmur of pity.
âAnd the cause? That will be difficult too?'
âNo. He was shot.'
She moved her hands and clicked her tongue.
âVery unpleasant,' she pronounced, and added maliciously, âIt will be interesting to see Ferdie Paul turn it into good publicity.'
Campion rose and stood looking down at her, his long thin figure drooping a little.
âI'd better fade away,' he said regretfully. âI can't very well butt in on her now.'
Lady Papendeik stretched out a restraining hand.
âNo, don't go,' she said. âYou stay. Be intelligent, of course; the woman's a client. But I'd like someone to see them all. We are putting up some of the money for Caesar's Court. I would like your advice. Paul and Ramillies will be here and so will Laminoff.'
âCaesar's Court?' Campion was surprised. âYou too? Everyone I meet seems to have a finger in that pie. You're sitting pretty. It's going to be a tom-tiddler's-ground.'
âI think so.' She smiled complacently. âLondon has never had that kind of luxury on the doorstep and we can afford
it. It was never possible in the old days because of the transport difficulty and when the transport did come there wasn't the money. Now the two have arrived together. Have you been out there yet? It's hardly a journey at all by car.'
âNo,' said Mr Campion, grinning. âI don't want to picnic in Naples, take a foam-bath, improve my game, eat a lotus or mix with the Ã©lite. Also, frankly, the idea of spending six or seven hundred on a week-end party makes me feel physically sick. However, I realize that there are people who do, and I must say I like the wholesale magnificence of the scheme. These things usually flop because the promoters will rely on one or two good features to carry the others. The show
solid leather all through. The chef from the Virginia, Teddy Quiot's Band, Andy Bullard in charge of the golf course, the Crannis woman doing the swimming and Waugh the tennis while it was genius to make the place the headquarters of the beauty king chap, what's-his-name?'
âMirabeau,' she supplied. âHe's an artist. Ditte, his
, designed my hair. Yes, the idea was excellent, but the execution has been extraordinary. That's Laminoff. Laminoff was the
at the Poire d'Or. Bjornson let him in when he crashed. He's incredible, and Madame is no fool. It was Laminoff who insisted that the flying field must be made a Customs Port. Alan Dell arranged that.'
âDell? Is he in it, too?'
âNaturally. All the club planes are Alandel machines and his pilots are in charge. His works are only a mile or so away on the other side of the river. He has a big interest in the whole hotel. That's how Val met him.'
âI see.' Mr Campion blinked. âIt's quite a neat little miracle of organization, isn't it? Who's the clever lad in the background? Who woke up in the night with the great idea?'
Tante Marthe hesitated.
âFerdie Paul. Don't mention it. It's not generally known.' She pursed her lips and looked down her long nose. âDo you know Paul?'
âNo. I thought he was a stage man. He's a producer, surely?'
âHe's very clever,' said Lady Papendeik. âHe made
Georgia Wells and he holds the leases of the Sovereign and the Venture theatres. The Cherry Orchard Club is his and he has a half-share in the Tulip Restaurant.'
Campion laughed. âAnd that's all you've been able to find out about him?'
She grimaced at him. âIt's not enough, is it?' she said. âAfter all, we're not made of money â who is? Oh, they're here, are they? We'll go down.'
She nodded and dismissed a page-boy who had barely entered the room and had not had time to open his mouth.
âNow,' she said without the slightest trace of conscious affectation, âwe will see what beautiful dresses can do to a woman. One of these gowns is so lovely that I burst into tears when I first saw it and Rex would have fainted if he hadn't controlled himself, the poor neurotic.'
Finding himself incapable of suitable comment, Mr Campion said nothing and followed her dutifully down the grand staircase.
IT WAS NEVER
Mr Campion's custom to make an entrance. In early youth he had perfected the difficult art of getting into and out of rooms without fuss, avoiding both the defensive flourish and the despicable creep, but he swept into Papendeik's grand Salon like the rearguard of a conqueror, which in a way, of course, he was.
Lady Papendeik at work was a very different person from Tante Marthe in Val's office. She appeared to be a good two inches taller, for one thing, and she achieved a curious sailing motion which was as far removed from ordinary walking as is the goose-step in an exactly opposite direction. Mr Campion found himself stalking behind her as though to fast and martial music. It was quite an experience.