Authors: Margery Allingham
‘Yes, of course,’ Campion held his breath. They were half-way across the Square now and in a moment or two windows would be over their heads again.
‘That fellow Pyne,’ said Hutch, ‘he called the Masters a glorified municipal council, you may remember. So he can, but if he realized how glorified they are he’d keep his mouth shut like the rest of us. Do you know, Mr Campion, there’s not a man in this town selling so much as a packet of cigarettes who doesn’t do his business solely at the direct discretion of the Masters? They’re kings, that’s what they are, little kings. Between ’em they own the whole place and the Institute makes ’em rich. Why do you think there’s no cinema in the whole of Bridge? Because the Masters don’t
to alter the character of the town. They own the land, they appoint the magistrates, they control the licences, and it’s their say-so. Same with the trippers. You’ll never see a charabanc in Bridge although it’s the most famous beauty spot in the whole of the south-west. The Masters don’t want charabancs. They know their townsfolk. In fact they are their townsfolk. They’re all related – the whole town is related – and charabancs aren’t allowed.’
He paused in his stride and lowered his voice.
‘Of course, being so old and so rich and having all the ancient ceremonial and secrecy and so on, it makes them very powerful. They’ve got such a pull. They always put up a Member of Parliament and they subsidize a Chair at one of the Universities – oh, they’ve got a finger in all sorts of pies! They’re thick as thieves with the Government and in fact I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if they weren’t one of the most powerful bodies in the whole country in their own quiet way.’
‘Quiet.’ Campion repeated the word aloud unconsciously. It was coming back to him, or rather it was all there now. He knew it all, just behind the shadows in his mind. The Superintendent’s urgent words were like a new facet on some old stone which he knew well.
Hutch snorted. ‘They’re quiet all right,’ he said. ‘There’s never been a meeting of theirs discussed at a tea-table, let alone reported in the press. It’s amazing what you can keep quiet if it’s in your interest to do so. That’s why I called our little job tonight delicate. We haven’t got too much time either. This way, sir. It’s quicker.’
He took Campion’s arm again as he spoke and drew him down a narrow alleyway between two dark houses whose sugarloaf roofs bowed to each other overhead.
‘This brings us out directly into the Nag’s Pykle,’ he said. ‘Round here.’
Another sharp turn brought them out into the open moonlight again and Campion, still with his new child’s eyes, was brought up short before what is perhaps one of the most dramatic natural pictures in England.
A broad road, still paved and flanked with squat houses, rises slowly to the Corn Exchange and the Nag’s Head Inn. The hostelry, fourth oldest in the country, is three storeys high and its centre gable, gallant but drunken, leans appreciably westward, lending the whole structure a note of ancient and irresponsible festivity both laughable and endearing. Behind this, and behind the Corn Exchange and the low tower of St Nicholas’s Church, stands the Nag itself. The bare hill rises up stark and unexpected, like the head of the giant horse it is said to resemble. It is threadbare limestone and is entirely naked save for the double line of ragged pine trees on the crest which in Bridge are called The Mane. In broad sunlight it is impressive and even menacing, but that night, by the moon, it was breath-taking.
Even the Superintendent was tempted to comment.
‘Extraordinary formation,’ he observed. ‘When you come on it like this you can almost believe the old tale about the bridge. You know that one, don’t you? Oh well, if you don’t, it’s interesting,’ he added with some satisfaction. ‘It shows you how far back the name of the town goes. There’s the river mouth behind there, as you know, and that other hill on the opposite bank is called The Manger. It’s got a big hollow in the top. You can see it on a clear day. The story goes that there was a great flood here once that cut the town right off from the mainland. There was a terrible famine and no one could put out in a boat because of the storms. Right at the last moment, when everyone was practically dead, the Mayor – or local saint or somebody – said his prayers extra strong and lo! and behold, “with a roar like a million drums”, the Nag raised his head and shot out his great neck and put his nose in The Manger over on the other side of the river. Those who were still strong enough ran along his mane and brought back food for the rest. The Nag kept his head in The Manger until the floods went down and then one night, when everything was quiet and everyone was asleep, like it might be tonight, he drew it very quietly back again. That’s the legend of how the town got its name, and there’s certainly no bridge in the place except
little humpbacked one down by the mill on the Coachingford road.’
He laughed a trifle self-consciously.
‘I always think of it when I come along here at night,’ he said. ‘I like that bit about the “roar like a million drums”. You can just imagine it, can’t you? I don’t know that there’s much moral to the tale, unless it’s that the Nag looks after Bridge. So he does, of course, to this day. Very much so. But it’s remarkable how an old tale like that gets handed down. I wonder you hadn’t heard it. It’s very well known. One of the big composers wrote a bit of music about it. Holst, was it?’
Campion said nothing. The story, coupled with the unexpected sight, was strangely moving. He knew he must be hearing it much as a savage might, or as the early unsophisticated inhabitants of the town must have done. It was damnably convincing. He felt quite a thrill of superstitious fear.
Meanwhile, the Superintendent’s attitude towards himself was growing more incomprehensible at every step. He was friendly, not to say obliging, and, moreover, the further they came the less certain of himself he appeared to be. But where they were going so fast and so secretly remained a complete and utter mystery.
Campion was naturally tempted to begin careful pumping operations, but he was alive to all the dangers. He knew so little about anything at all that the most innocent remark could easily prove a disaster. He ventured one little feeler.
‘Mr Aubrey rather expected you to come along earlier this evening,’ he said.
‘I daresay he did, sir.’ Hutch became an official again. ‘I had one or two things to see to. I’d hardly left Mr Anscombe’s house when something else cropped up.’
‘Oh?’ Campion tried to show interest without anxiety and the Superintendent rose to the fly.
‘I had a call from Coachingford,’ he said briefly. ‘They’re having a bit of a man hunt all round here tonight. As far as I could get it on the telephone the case seems to have all
usual features, but it’s a worry in wartime. There was the stolen car abandoned on the high road and all the rest of it. They’ll pick him up in the morning when they can see what they’re doing. They’re circulating a full description … here we are, sir, this way.’
The final announcement was providential, since it covered Campion for the necessary moment. He had started like a cat, he noticed with concern, and he had a conviction that his nerves were not usually so unreliable.
They had passed the Inn now and had taken a side turning which ran round the eastern base of the Nag. This street was particularly ancient and here the buildings hung together, shrinking into the very sides of the hill. The shop before which Hutch had paused was a grocery and in its bow windows the familiar cartons of breakfast food, condensed milk, and sugar substitutes looked ridiculous. Such a place should have sold love philtres at least.
The Superintendent took Campion’s elbow and led him into a minute alley which ran down between the shop and its neighbour. This passage was so narrow that they could not walk abreast and at one point, where the wall bulged, there was scarcely space for Campion’s shoulders. Hutch was treading like a hunter. His tall figure passed like a shadow and his feet made no noise. Campion followed him with equal technique.
At the end of the alley they came into a yard. It was little more than a well, with the Nag rising sheer on one side and the building crowding down upon them on the other.
Hutch produced a torch no larger than a rifle cartridge. Its pin-point beam lit up a keyhole in a surprisingly modern door set in an ancient frame. A short key slid into position and the lock turned over. They passed inside into the spicy, slightly rancid atmosphere of a store-room. Campion followed the Superintendent blindly. His passage now had all the actual qualities of dreaming. He had no idea where he was and the velvet dark was warm and faintly anaesthetic.
They seemed to go on walking for some time and his impression was that they were following a narrow path amid
kinds of obstacles. Another door brought them to a flight of wooden stairs and a surprising change of atmosphere. It was still warm, but the air now smelt of paper and floor-polish and the gentle, exciting odour of old wood. It was a long climb and Hutch began to relax some of his elaborate caution.
‘We’re right in the hill now,’ he said unexpectedly. ‘You wouldn’t think it, would you? We’ll go right on up to the Council Chamber, shall we? There’s nothing much down here.’
‘By all means.’ Campion spoke absently. He was struggling with incredulity. ‘Where are we?’ he demanded, throwing caution to the winds. ‘In the Town Hall?’
Hutch laughed. He seemed to take the question as a witticism.
‘That’s about the size of it, really, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘The Masters run the show in Bridge, not the officials in Basket Street. At one time, you know this used to be the only administrative headquarters in the town. I believe they used to hold the courts in the Council Chamber. It’s very interesting if you’re keen on ancient history. The whole place is formed from the natural caves in the hill. The air shafts are artificial but they’re prehistoric. You’ll be impressed by the room. I’ve only been in it once, and that was last year when I had to come up before the society and make a report. The carving is remarkable, I believe, to those who know.’
‘Is this the only entrance?’ enquired Campion faintly.
‘Not likely.’ Hutch paused in his stride. ‘You know about that, surely? Excuse me, sir, but don’t you know your guidebook? I thought everyone knew about the Doors of Bridge, as they call them. It’s one of the features of the place. It’s my opinion that it’s those four doors which give the Masters their peculiar fanciful quality. After all, there’s nothing extraordinary in an ancient body meeting in a room built in a hill. In the old days it served as a fortress, and stood a long siege in the Jacobite rebellion. But those four doors, each one marked by an innocent-looking house, give it a sort of romantic touch, if you see what I mean.’
‘What houses?’ enquired Campion, who appeared to have given up subterfuge.
‘Well, there’s the pub for one.’ Hutch was torn between astonishment and delight at the discovery of such ignorance. ‘The old Nag’s Head is built across the main door. You can see it in the back room, a lovely bit of carved wood. Takes up all one side. That’s the ceremonial entrance where the Masters go in on a meeting night. Then there’s the Gate House, where Mr Peter Lett lives. He’s the hereditary gatekeeper. That door leads out of his drawing-room and isn’t often used. His house is round the other side, in the Haymarket Road. The third door is off the Rectory. It’s a sort of gallery there, next to the Church. And the fourth lies behind the Wain House, farther off down the street. Mr Phillips, who is the hereditary groom, lives there. It’s all very old-world and out of the ordinary, if you come to it new, but of course when you’re as used to it as we are you don’t see anything in it. It’s just a custom, that’s all.’
Campion felt an absurd desire to sit down on the stairs. He wondered vaguely if all ancient history sounded as picturesque as this when it was heard for the first time, and, if so, if most children lived in this perpetual state of astonishment.
‘We came in by a fifth door, then,’ he murmured.
‘We came in by the back door,’ said Hutch firmly. ‘Not many people know about it and I daresay it’s comparatively recent – not above seventy years old perhaps. Like everybody else the Masters have to have cleaners and they have to have goods delivered. I imagine they must have bought the shop at some period and installed a caretaker there. It’s an old-fashioned business. It’s been in the same family for years. I came in that way tonight because it seemed safest. I don’t want to have to give a lot of explanations and I’m sure you don’t. This is the last step, sir. Now to your right.’
He produced a larger torch as he spoke and Campion was startled by the height of the gallery in which they stood. It seemed to have no ceiling but to go on up and up into infinity. There was a pleasant dull sound of wood on wood,
faint squeak from a protesting hinge, and then a great rush of cool air as they passed into the room within.
Hutch swept a broad beam of light round them and Campion stepped back. The place was enormous. It was churchlike and colossal. He received a confused impression of black panelling, the lower halves of mighty pictures, full-length portraits of heroic size, and, overhead, canopies of ragged banners, still bright and gallant after their passage down the centuries. The centre-piece turned out somewhat tamely to be a table. It was a mighty affair of glistening black oak and was fitted snugly on a carpet which must have been very nearly the size of a tennis court, but apart from this it was normal enough and almost ordinary. Twenty-five chairs encircled it and at the head, before a seat larger than the others, was a pile of papers and a very prosaic speaker’s water-bottle and glass.
The silence was remarkable. It hung over them like a smothering pall. There was not a breath anywhere, not a crackle of shrinking wood, not a scurry of dust upon the stone floor, nothing. Hutch sighed deeply. It was evident that he was about to make some pronouncement and Campion nerved himself to meet whatever might be coming.
The man’s words when they arrived, however, took him completely by surprise.