Authors: E.R. Punshon
“Know him?” he asked.
Bobby was for a moment too surprised to answer. He had thought of every one else but not of the man whose dead face now was staring up at him.
“Yes. I know him,” he said.
Bobby Owen's fiancÃ©e and milliner to the wealthy, Olive Farrar, has a problem. It concerns two competitive society matrons and a missing hat. But it becomes a case of murder when the butler of one of the ladies is shot dead, his body stabbed after the fact. While investigating, Bobby encounters many suspicious characters who might have done it â eight in total. Lurking in the shadows is a ninth suspect â but who can it be?
, originally published in 1939, is the twelfth novel in the Bobby Owen mystery series. This new edition features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.
“What is distinction? The few who achieve it step â plot or no plot â unquestioned into the first rank... in the works of Mr. E.R. Punshon we salute it every time.”Â
Dorothy L. Sayers
So-called “manners mystery”âthe conscious use of the detective fiction form to explore social mores in the fashion of the nineteenth-century novel of mannersâwas enjoying great prestige in 1939, the year E.R. Punshon published
, his twelfth Bobby Owen detective novel. By this time the influential English crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers had identified and powerfully boosted the manners movement both in her Thirties mystery criticism and her own detective novels, particularly
(1935), which was so concerned with the romantic relationship between Sayers's detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and his beloved, popular mystery writer Harriet Vane, and the question of women's place in society that some puzzle purists of the day complained actual detection became incidental to the novel. Sayers's sister Crime Queens Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham followed Sayers's example in their own mystery writing. Marsh in the 1938 detective novels
Artists in Crime
Death in a White Tie
introduced a love interest, artist Agatha Troy, for her posh detective, Roderick Alleyn, to pursue and win, over a much wider social canvas than the author had heretofore painted, while Allingham in
Dancers in Mourning
The Fashion in Shrouds
(1938) intensively explored the social worlds of, respectively, musical theater and the fashion industry. These novels were, on the whole, rapturously received by crime fiction critics, and other mystery writers rushed to flatter with imitation these ascendant monarchs of manners mystery.
Not all of these crime fiction courtiers, if you will, were women. One of the most significant male contributors to manners mystery fiction at this time was E.R. Punshon, who, in his position as the crime fiction reviewer for the
, had lavished praise on Sayers's
, which he gave pride of place in his inaugural
review column. (Punshon reviewed crime fiction in the pages of the
between 13 November 1935 and 27 May 1942, a span of over six years.) Turnabout, to be sure, was fair play--Sayers as crime fiction reviewer for the
between 1933 and 1935 had awarded plenteous plaudits to Punshon's Bobby Owen detective novelsâbut the admiration that Punshon expressed both for
and its author's lofty goals in writing it went beyond mere reciprocal backscratching, for Sayers's personal ambition to write detective novels that were not only clever puzzles but good novels as well mirrored Punshon's own. “This is not only a detective story, not only a psychological study of a learned community under the strain of sensational events, it is also a love tale,” observed Punshon admiringly of
. “And since it is laid in academic surroundings one may borrow from the schools and award Miss Sayers a double first: honours in in the detective-tale class, honours in the orthodox-novel class as well.”
In Punshon's tenth Bobby Owen detective novel,
(1938), the author with Olive Farrar, the charming owner of “Olive, Hats,” a chic West End shop, introduced, as Dorothy L. Sayers had done earlier in the Thirties with Harriet Vane, a professionally accomplished and independent love interest for his sleuth. In the next mystery in the Bobby Owen series,
Comes a Stranger
(1938), Bobby and Olive are engaged to be married. Olive plays a fairly large role in this appealing novel, yet its setting is not in London, but rather at a village and nearby country house; and its focus falls less on Olive's romance with Bobby than an interesting criminal problem concerning a renowned privately owned library of rare books.
(1939), on the other hand, returns Punshon readers to London society and a more intensive focus on intimate relationships between men and women, including Bobby and Olive themselves. Like contemporary mysteries by Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh,
was extremely well-received by reviewers, this praise from William Blunt in his notice in the
being representative of the acclaim afforded the novel: “Mr. Punshon has never done betterâ¦.Here is the true rigour of the game.”
Comically Bobby's involvement in the case in
arises from a seemingly minor matter concerning a misappropriated hat. That intrepid and angular world traveler, Lady Alice Belchamber, author of the bestseller
Through the Earth's Dark Places
and notorious for having battled natives while armed only with a knife, triumphantly carries off from “Olive, Hats” a glorious treasure that was expressly fashioned by Olive's deputy, Mademoiselle Valclos--aka Victoria Alexandria Bates, or simply “Vicky” to Olive--for Lady Alice's greatest domestic enemy, famed beauty Flora Tamar, wife of Michael Tamar, head of Tamar Internal Combustion Engine Co., Ltd. (“[U]nlimited would have been a better description now that Mr. Tamar had patriotically placed all his resources at the disposal of the Government for their re-armament scheme at a mere trifling profit so inconsiderable that he never cared to disclose it, not even to the Government accountants themselves,” observes Punshon wryly.) Visiting Olive at the shop shortly after the great hat pillage has occurred, Bobby proposes that he call upon the two prominent society women in an attempt to ameliorate the crisis. To this proposal Olive assents, though with the admonition, concerning ravishing Flora Tamar, “don't fall in love with herâ¦.They say every man does at sight.”
Unable to retrieve from the formidable Lady Alice the hat Olive had intended for Flora Tamar, Bobby nevertheless assumes he has concluded his small part in the drama of these two implacable foes; yet he finds himself embroiled in a much more serious matter impacting both women when Munday, the Tamar butler, is found shot dead--and stabbed for good measure--on Weeton Hill, in South Essex. Bobby determines there are nine possible suspects in the case: Flora Tamar and her husband, Michael; Roger Renfield, Michael Tamar's nephew and heir; Holland Kent and Julius “Judy” Patterson, suspected lovers of Flora Tamar (the latter is a known denizen of the Cut and Come Again, a notorious London club which recurrently appears in Punshon's Bobby Owen series); Lady Alice Belchamber and her lovely niece, Ernestine “Ernie” Maddox; a sleazy private detective named Martin; and, finally, “X,” some person unknown.
During the course of Bobby's investigation of this intricate crime, Punshon finds occasion to wryly comment upon the mysteries of both hat couture and the romantic relationships between men and women. His writing is at its most amusing when Olive and Vicky explain to Bobby the intricacies of the fashionable hat trade, where the greatest difficulty is getting wealthy clients actually to pay for their purchases, but other droll challenges tend to rear their heads as well. “I thought it was the cocktails at first,” Olive explains concerning an occasion when Ernie Maddox behaved oddly in her shop:
“It is sometimes. There was a girl came in last week. She had been to a cocktail party and every hat she tried on she said she would buyâseventeen and she only stopped becauseâ¦.”
“Becauseâ¦?” asked Bobby.
Olive looked prim.
“It was awfully lucky,” she said, “Vicky got her to the wash-bowl in time. You know, I don't believe girls know cocktails are half gin.”
The mess men and women potentially can make of their intimate relationships is much on view in
as well. “You're young. Take my advice,” lectures a jaded Michael Tamar, between drinks, to Bobby. “Never love a woman. Mind that. Never love a woman. It's hell.” “Or heaven?” hopefully counters Bobby, who at novel's end remains engaged to Olive, whose wisdom concerning both the hat business and human relationships has been amply demonstrated.
Behind the shopâif one may use so commonplace a word for an establishment rare and strange even among those devoted in the West End of London to the sale of hats, there sat Miss Olive Farrar, sole proprietor, and at the moment very much wishing she wasn't, as she wrestled with the last quarter's accounts.
Once more, for the tenth time, she added up the figures, and once more, when she saw the total, sighed in utter despair. Not, as should traditionally have been the case, because the result was always different, but because that result was always the same, invariably, inexorably, ineluctably the same. Not by one iota could she get it different; and it showed quite plainly and simply that the total net profit for the last quarter amounted to exactly three shillings and sixpence halfpenny.
No wonder, Olive thought gloomily, that her fiancÃ©, Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen, of the Criminal Investigation Department, Metropolitan Police, wanted her to give up the business, sell out, and get ready to marry him at once, promotion or no promotion.
Olive smiled faintly as she thought of Bobby, but reflected that there was seven hundred and fifty pounds, her little all, in the business, and that at present it would be difficult to sell it for as many shillings. Then she took up her pen and wrote in more clearly the odd ha'penny of her last quarter's profit. After all, a ha'penny is still a ha'penny, even if it is nothing more.
She tried to console herself by thinking of alleviating circumstances. There were, for example, outstanding accounts amounting in all to a substantial figure. In her present depressed mood Olive was inclined to wonder if a pile of bad debts would not be a more accurate description. One never knew, though. Olive still remembered the shock they all sustained when, after three âR.D.' cheques in succession, Miss Lucille Dubane scored a win at a night clubâthe win being the son of a wealthy north-country manufacturerâand promptly paid up in full. Not only that but still, after the divorce, she remained a valued client, almost always paying cash since the alimony had been arranged on liberal terms.
But a business cannot live on one cash client alone. Things might improve, no doubt, for certainly last quarter had been specially bad and no one quite knew why, though Mademoiselle Valclos, Olive's head assistant, advanced the theory that the falling off was due to competition from gas masks, which seemed, she said thoughtfully, to be to-day your only wear. In the whole three past months there had been only two bright spots. Lady Alice Belchamber had paid her account, outstanding one hardly knew how long. At this moment, too, Lady Alice was in the shop, selecting a new hat for the forthcoming Royal garden party at Buckingham Palace, and that incidentally was one reason why Olive was here, busy with accounts, and not there, helping to effect a sale. For Lady Alice, formidable and well-known explorer and traveller, pioneer of Empire, authoress of several well-known books of travel, was a little apt to carry into her everyday transactions those methods by which she had bullied and browbeaten her way through the most remote districts of the darkest continents. The story went that she once had cowed with her riding whip a tribe of armed and furious reputed cannibals, and it was certain that in her flat hung a formidable knife with which she admitted having slain the Arab, who, armed with it, had penetrated her tent somewhere in the wilds of the near East. Olive had been only too glad to leave Lady Alice in the calm, competent, exquisitely manicured hands of Mlle Valclos, so confident of her ability to deal with any pioneer any Empire ever knew.
All the same Olive was not altogether sure that Mlle Valclos fully realized what it was she was taking on.
The one other bright spot in this last quarter had been the appearance in the shop of Flora Tamar, wife of Michael Tamar, of the Tamar Internal Combustion Engine Co., Ltd., though unlimited would have been a better description now that Mr. Tamar had patriotically placed all his resources at the disposal of the Government for their re-armament scheme at a mere trifling profit so inconsiderable he had never cared to disclose it, not even to the Government accountants themselves. A modest and becoming reticence. It was not, however, merely the wealth behind Flora Tamar that made her so desirable a client. She enjoyed the deserved reputation of being one of the most beautiful women in London, so that to provide her with hats was not only a privilege, it was more, it was an advertisement. A hat on Flora's head, indeed, was not merely a hat, it was Publicity, and of course publicity is how to-day prosperity is spelt. Nor was that all. Flora had ideas, had what Mlle Valclos called âa touch with a hat', and on Mademoiselle's lips those words meant much, meant all. Olive herself, though admittedly competent, had never earned such praise, knew, indeed, she did not merit it, and would look on humbly and in silence while Mrs. Tamar and Mlle Valclos argued together, as in the shades Michael Angelo and Raphael may be thought to discuss other points of form and colour. Even at this moment there reposed in the shop a new creation waiting the approval of Flora and owing its central noveltyâand what a novelty!âentirely to Flora herself. Hers alone had been the original suggestion; though in its final form it owed, undoubtedly, much to the executive ability of Mlle Valclos. The result was one that Mademoiselle was gently sure would create a sensation, would send the name and fame of Olive's establishment rampaging through every smart drawing-room in London, would set New York agog, shake even the settled supremacy of Paris. Already Mademoiselle had allowed a few of the more favoured clientsâthose who were influential or who generally paid upâto peep at the completed masterpiece awaiting Flora's final approval.
It was at this moment that certain sounds from without attracted Olive's attention. Voices seemed to be raised above those usual and expected cries of ecstasy the sight of the new hat was wont to evoke. Lady Alice's gruff tones were distinctly audible. Laying down the law as usual, Olive supposed. Odd, Olive reflected, since Lady Alice and Flora Tamar were known to be deadly enemies, that it was through Lady Alice that Mrs. Tamar had heard of them. A hat Mlle Valclos had designed for Lady Alice's harsh, immobile features had attracted Flora's attention at some fashionable affair they had both attended, and she had inquired where it had come from.
“To provide that grenadier of a woman,” Flora had said, “with a hat that is almost smart and yet doesn't look ridiculous on herâwell, it's a feat. I must see what they can do for Me,” said Flora with an almost royal emphasis on the Me.
The result was the superb, distinctive creation now ready for inspection in a locked compartment on a shelf in the shop, for it was not intended that any but the specially favoured and entirely trustworthy should have a glimpse of the waiting wonder. Imagine if some clever copyist obtained a surreptitious glimpse and produced something of even a remote resemblance! A thought to make the blood run cold! And if no description is here attempted it is simply because no description could convey any idea of the delicacy of its lines, the exquisite sweep of its curves, the subtle harmony of its colouring, or make clear how exquisitely it expressed, confirmed, as it were, crowned, the beauty, the perfection of face and form and feature for which it was designed.
On another it might be, Mademoiselle admitted, a shade too much, a nuance too little. For Flora Tamarâ and then Mademoiselle lapsed into that silence which is so far, far more eloquent than any mere form of words.
It was, she told Olive, as though perfect hat and perfect wearer had for once come together, as we are told time and the man do never, but, as in this event had done the woman and the hat!
Olive turned uneasily in her chair. Outside, in the shop, there roared the voice of Lady Alice, as no doubt it had roared when she met and faced and tamed that crowd of armed savages of whom the story told.
A door bangedâbanged so that the whole place shook. A bang of doom, in fact. The door communicating with the shop opened and Mademoiselle flew in. She collapsed into a chair. Olive had a glimpse of the pale, scared face of Jenny, the junior assistant. Even the errand boy himself, who had just come in, looked scared and disturbedâ a thing Olive would never have thought possible. Mademoiselle gasped out,
“She's gone off with it.”
Simple words, perhaps, but charged with fate and fear. Olive clasped her hands. She did not understand but already she was shaken.
“She's gone off with it,” said Mademoiselle once again.
“Who? what?” said Olive.
“Lady Alice. The Hat. Mrs. Tamar's hat,” said Mademoiselle.
“Vicky,” said Olive. “Oh, Vicky.”
Mademoiselle's name out of business hours was Victoria Alexandria Bates, her father having been a loyal linen draper in Camden Town. In business she was Mademoiselle Valclos, usually addressed as Mademoiselle, but in moments of emotion, such as those caused by an unexpected âR.D.', or a sale of a last season's model at a this season's price, known to her employer as âVicky'.
This was clearly a âVicky' moment, though even yet Olive did not fully understand.
“Vicky!” said Olive once again. “You don't mean...?”
“Pinched it and bunked off,” said Vicky simply.
“Not,” said Olive, hardly daring to bring out the words, “not the Flora Tamar?”
Vicky did not answer. There was no need to. One might as well, in the middle of an earthquake, have asked, âIs it an earthquake?'
It wasn't âwell' at all, anything but âwell' indeed. But then words are poor inadequate things when the depths are really plumbed.
“Well,” said Olive once more, and this time the accent, if not the word, expressed something of the emotions seething within.
“She had heard about it,” Vicky explained with a kind of desperate calm. “She seems somehow to keep tabs on Mrs. Tamar and she asked if she might see the Tamar hat and so I let her. Then she asked if she might hold it and I let her”âat this point Vicky's voice rose almost to a wail of anguishâ“and she said might she try it on, and she did. It looked silly on her. I knew it would, but we all kept straight faces. She said, âI'll keep it. How much is it?' I thought she was joking and I said Mrs. Tamar was paying us twenty guineas. She said she would give us twenty-five. I thought she was just trying to be funnyâat least I tried to but I was beginning to feel funny myselfâhere.” Vicky indicated the exact spot. “I said it wasn't for sale, and she shouted that every hat in a hat shop was for sale or what was it there for? And then before I could say a word, before I could lift a finger, before I knew what she was up to, the catâshe, she bounced out.”
“With theâwearing theâHat?” almost whispered Olive.
“Wearing the hat,” confirmed Vicky.
“Oh, Vicky,” said Olive.
“I flung her own after her,” said Vicky, “but what was the good of that? Only a gesture.”
Then she burst into tears. It was a dreadful thing to see the calm, confident superiority, so lofty, so assured, with which Vicky was accustomed to rule the shop and direct the sale, that gentle and aloof disdain by which the customer who had meant to ask for a guinea model was as it were impelled to consider only the three- and five- guinea variety, to see all that dissolve and melt away till nothing was left save a devastated young woman sitting and howling her heartiest.
“Oh, Vicky,” said Olive. “Oh, Vicky, please don't.”
“I couldn't help it, really I couldn't,” pleaded Vicky through her sobs. “I know I've let you down, but I just simply never dreamed of such a thingâshe was out of the shop and in a taxi before any of us could lift a finger. If I had only known what she was up to,” said Vicky, showing menacing, crimsoned finger-nails, “I'd have had it off her, if I had had to scratch her eyes out and tear the clothes off her back to get it. And now it's gone.”
The sobs came again. Olive put an arm round her, and, after a moment's hesitation, kissed the tip of her nose as being theâcomparativelyâdriest spot available.
“Might as well stop yelling,” Olive suggested,
Vicky's sobs diminished in violence.
“Whatever shall we do?" she asked. “Mrs. Tamar may be here for it any moment.”
Olive considered. She came to a decision.
“We'll have a cup of tea,” she said firmly.
Vicky got out her handkerchief and, as that was plainly quite inadequate, went to find a face towel. She looked at herself in the glass. She said simply,
“I must do me.”
She became busy with this operation. Olive filled the kettle and put it on the small electric stove they used. Vicky, intent before the mirror, said,
“Mrs. Tamar will never forgive us.”
“I expect we'll lose her,” agreed Olive. “It was for the Buckingham Palace garden party, wasn't it?"
“Yes,” said Vicky. She turned tragically, lip-stick and compact in hand. She said very slowly, “I thought perhaps even the Queen herself might have noticed that hatâI thought perhaps someday we might be asked to send hats to the Palace.” She sighed as the lost soul might sigh who sees the gates of paradise slowly closing. “And nowâ” She resumed her task. “Now most likely Lady Alice will wear it,” she said. “It'll look awful.”
“No good,” said Olive, making the tea and making it strong, “no good thinking about it.”
“It's not even,” said Vicky, “as if it were anything like Lady Alice's style. People will say we let our clients go out lookingâsights. I might have found something to suit herâonly nothing could except a gas mask,” added Vicky viciously. “Olive, why don't you sack me?”
“Well, that wouldn't get the hat back, would it?” asked Olive. “It's all rather awful, but I don't see how any one could possibly have helped it.”
“I might have grabbed her if I had been quicker,” sighed Vicky. “But she was out of the shop and in the taxi like lightning.”
“She's twice as big and strong as you are,” Olive pointed out. “Almost like a man.”
Jenny, the junior assistant, put a small, scared face in at the door and looked much relieved when she saw them drinking tea. She would hardly have been surprised to find them both unconscious on the floor. She said,
“Oh, please, Mr. Owen's here.”
Vicky jumped up. She spilt her tea in doing so but she didn't care. She cried,
“Oh, why ever didn't we think of him? He's a policeman and he can go and arrest her or something and make her give it back again.”
But the eager hope that had for a moment glimmered in Vicky's eyes died down again as Bobby, put in possession of the facts, shook a somewhat dubious head.
“Jolly awkward,” he said, “but I don't see quite what you can do.”
“But she's stolen it, it's theft,” cried Vicky indignantly. “Why can't you arrest her? Police can, can't they?”
“Well, so can you for that matter,” Bobby answered, “only you've got to justify it afterwards. And so have we.”
“When somebody steals something,” protested Vicky.
“Nobody seems to know the difference between a felony and a misdemeanour,” Bobby told her, “but I expect this would be called a misdemeanour and a warrant would be necessary.”
“But you could tell her who you were and you were going to,” urged Vicky. “It would frighten her, and if she gave it back, then it would be all right. It's stealing, running off with someone else's hat.”
“I don't think,” interposed Olive, looking doubtful, “that Lady Alice would frighten very easily.”
“I'm afraid,” observed Bobby, “they wouldn't like it very much at the Yard if we went about trying to frighten peopleâespecially if there were private friends in it. If you did prosecute, I should have to be careful to keep out. You can apply for a warrant but honestly I'm not sure you would get it. Most likely you would be told your remedy was a civil action.”
“Besides,” added Olive, “we don't want clients to think if they come here, they may be arrested.”
“We must do something,” Vicky wailed, “we must get it back or what will Mrs. Tamar say? She may think we let it go on purpose because of being paid extra.”
“It's jolly awkward,” agreed Bobby, wrinkling a puzzled forehead.
“It's ruin,” said Vicky dramatically. “Blue ruin,” she added, apparently convinced that ruin of that hue was ruin worst of all.
“You could get your lawyers to write and threaten proceedings,” observed Bobby.
“Would that be any good?” asked Olive.
“Not a scrap,” said Bobby. “Goodness knows when the case would come on. You would probably get judgment for the return of the hat or its value and costsâcosts being about half your expenses, probably. Most likely Lady Alice would swear you said she could have it, and her counsel would go all out on suggesting you were only bringing the action to put yourself right with the client you had let down. If the judge' believed that you might get let in for costs yourselves.”
Vicky rose, to her feet. There were times when Olive felt that the stage had lost a great tragic actress in Vicky. With one hand clenched against her breast, one held out at length, she cried in vibrant tones,
“Do you mean there isn't a damn thing we can do?” There was a silence, a deep and solemn silence, broken only when the door from the shop opened and Jenny poked her head in.
“Were you calling?” she asked.
No one took any notice of her. Bobby said,
“That's about the size of it.”
Once more silence reigned. Jenny, more scared than ever, withdrew. A moment later she appeared again.
“Oh, please,” she said, “there's a message and I think it's from her.”
No need to ask who âher' meant. They all knew. Jenny produced an envelope. Olive opened it. It contained a cheque for Â£26 5
. Olive let it flutter to the ground from her nerveless fingers. Vicky picked it up.
“It isn't the hat,” she said sadly.
“Consolidating the position, that's called,” observed Bobby. “Pretty stiff price, isn't it?”
“Nine guineas and a half was the real figure, wasn't it, Vicky?” Olive asked.
“We said Â£10,” answered Vicky, “and then, because of Mrs. Tamar helping and being such a good client, we reduced it to nine guineas and a half. Mrs. Tamar was quite pleased. I did say twenty to Lady Alice but, of course, that was just sales talk. You have to impress people.”
“If it came into court, counsel would argue you had quoted a price,” observed Bobby.
Vicky picked up the cheque again.
“It's something,” she admitted, “and goodness knows, we want it. All the same it's just plain simple ruin. Mrs. Tamar will never forgive us. She'll tell every one. We'll be shunned likeâlike,” said Vicky, rising again to tragic heights, “like Lepers.”
“What shall we do with the cheque?” Olive asked Bobby.
“Well, at any rate, it's what you might call an extenuating circumstance,” he answered. “Keep it for the present. Too late to pay it in now, anyhow. What's the idea? What's she so keen on the thing for?”
“Spite,” explained Vicky. “Every one knows she hates Mrs. Tamar, though I don't suppose any one dreamed it would make her do a thing like this. Mrs. Tamar was to have worn it at the Buckingham Palace party and now she won't and Lady Alice will.”
“Doesn't seem worth twenty-six pounds five to me,” observed Bobby. “Do you know what it's all about?”
“They say Flora Tamar pinched her best boy years ago and she's never forgiven her. So she keeps tabs on her.”
“How do you mean?” asked Bobby, a little startled. “Keeps tabs?”
“Has her watched all the time so perhaps she can catch her out in something some day,” Vicky explained. “I expect that's how she heard about Flora's hat. I let one or two people have a peep, people I thought I could trust. I expect some of them talked and Lady Alice heard.”
“A lot of gossip goes on here, you know, Bobby,” Olive explained. “There's something about trying on hats makes people talk. I've often noticed it. We hear the most extraordinary things.”
“Sometimes,” volunteered Vicky, “sometimes it's quite true.”
“You mean this hat business is a sort of revenge?” Bobby asked.
“She's a vindictive old bean,” observed Vicky thoughtfully. “I shouldn't wonder. Spying, watching, waiting her chance. Ugh.”
She shivered slightly. The picture, indeed, was not a pleasant one; that of an unscrupulous, passionate woman, used to wild places where the law was of little account, and now watching and waiting, hoping that some day her enemy would afford her a chance to strike. Bobby knew something of Lady Alice's reputation. She had figured in police-court proceedings more than once. There had been the case of the vacuum-cleaner salesman who had been slow in accepting her refusal to purchase and who, in consequence, and according to his story, had been thrown downstairs. According to her version he had merely tripped in hurrying to obey her command which she admitted had been accompanied by certain threatsâand anyhow it served him right. She had escaped with a comparatively light fine. She had been fined, too, and more heavily, for having upended and applied the flat of a hairbrush to the appropriate portion of the anatomy of a maid she had caught, she said, reading a private letter. There had been one or two other incidents as well, settled out of court, and also that notorious affair over her famous book,
Through the Earth's Dark Places
, when she had succeeded in doing down one of the most astute publishers in London for over a thousand pounds.
Altogether a formidable woman, a formidable enemy, too, and Bobby found himself reflecting that Flora Tamar might do well to be upon her guard. For a. moment, indeed, he seemed to catch a glimpse of grimmer, darker things lurking behind this business of the stolen hat, as though it were not only the somewhat senseless act of petty spite that it seemed.
“If she does nothing worse than running off with Mrs. Tamar's new hatsâ” observed Bobby and left the sentence unfinished.
“Nothingâworse?” gasped Vicky, quite bewildered.
“Sorry,” said Bobby. “Look here, how would it be if I went round and saw her? I shan't say who I am, of course, and she won't know me, so that'll be all right. I could be your representative, you could let me have one of your trade cards. It won't be any good, most likely, but I could try and talk her over.”
The offer was really a quite genuine and natural desire to help Olive; but at the same time Bobby was conscious of a certain curiosity, a kind of wish both to meet a woman who seemed a somewhat remarkable personality and also to try to form an opinion as to whether or no there was anything more serious involved than a malicious trick to annoy a rival. Olive accepted with gratitude.
“Oh, Bobby, could you?” she exclaimed. “It's really awfully important to get it back again if we possibly can.”
“I don't know what I shall dare say to Mrs. Tamar,” put in Vicky. “It'll be awful when she comes,” and at the thought began to sob again.
“Oh, shut it, Vicky,” exclaimed Olive impatiently, “blubbing's no good.”
“If you like,” Bobby said, moved by Vicky's distress, “I'll go on and see Mrs. Tamar and tell her what's happened. She can't slang me quite as much as she might you, and I shan't care if she does. Anyhow, the worst will be over before she turns up here, and it may look more civil for you to send your special trade representative round to break the awful news.”
This offer, too, was accepted with gratitude, and Bobby started forthwith on his dual errand, it being understood that if, by happy chance, he did succeed in rescuing the lost hat, he was to return with it as fast as the fastest taxi could bear him. If not, then he would proceed to visit Mrs. Flora Tamar, in the hope that her feminine wrath might be a trifle mitigated in bursting on his masculine head.
“Only don't fall in love with her,” Olive warned him. “They say every man does at sight.”
Bobby promised to do his best to be the exception to prove the rule and so departed. Lady Alice Belchamber occupied a flat in one of those huge new blocks of buildings that now ring round Regent's Park as with a circle of castles. They are all much the same, all of them containing every possible modern amenity, the one Lady Alice inhabited having several others as well: a swimming pool, squash court, roof garden above and air-raid shelter below, uniformed porters all at least six feet high and all with two or three rows of medals, cocktail bars on every floor, hot water, central heating, refrigerators, conditioned air, wireless laid on in every room; in fact, not a want anxious search for selling points could discover had been left unsupplied, though in this general eagerness air, space, and light had somehow or another got overlookedâpresumably because not modern.
Lady Alice's flat was on the top floorâwhich perhaps explained the bitterness wherewith that unlucky vacuum-cleaner salesman had recounted his experiences. From the great entrance hall, gleaming in marble and gold, rose the battery of lifts serving the building; and as Bobby waited for an âup' to come down, he noticed a little man peeping at him from behind one of the enormous porters and recognized at once the small, thin, pointed, fox-like face as that of a man, named William Martin, he knew to be in the employment of one of the (slightly) less disreputable private inquiry agenciesâEternal Vigilance, Ltd.
Plainly the recognition was mutual, for, after just that one look, Mr. Martin vanished with a precipitation that surprised Bobby, since, so far as he knew at least there was nothing against Mr. Martin at the moment. Probably, Bobby thought, engaged on some dirty bit of work he had no wish any policeman should know anything about. Once or twice, though not for any very important reasons, Bobby had come in contact with Mr. Martin, and always with thoroughly unsatisfactory results, for Mr. Martin, who had been a solicitor's clerk till a misunderstanding over the petty cash had induced him to turn his thoughts to another profession, knew the law thoroughly, knew its tenderness towards the suspect, its nervous anxiety lest that suspect should be unfairly treated, knew as well the almost magical power of the formula, âI can't remember'; and was altogether an exceedingly tough customer. He was believed, too, though nothing had ever been proved, to be quite ready to employ violence when occasion servedâand it seemed safe. Darker tales even were told, and he had narrowly escaped arrest in connection with the case of a woman found strangled and dead in an empty house. An alibi had served him well on that occasion, and though the police believed it false, that was not certain. In any case a false alibi, put forward by a man suspected of murder, is no proof that he is actually guilty. He may be merely trying to establish a true innocence by untrue means.
The lift appeared, and Bobby, entering it to ascend, found himself remembering what Vicky had said about Lady Alice âkeeping tabs' on Flora Tamar. Bobby hoped Mr. Martin was not the agent employed for that purpose. If he were, it seemed to Bobby very likely trouble was looming in the distance, probably not the far distance, either. Again he became aware of a sense of deep unease, almost of impending catastrophe, as though behind this petty incident of the stolen hat dark, unknown forces moved.
He walked along the corridor where the lift deposited him and found and knocked at Lady Alice's door. It was opened by a tall, commanding-looking woman in a rough tweed coat and skirt, with harsh, prominent features, a nose like the beak of a bird of prey, hair clipped close to the head, and pale, vivid eyes in which anger seemed to lurk like fire in flint. Lady Alice herself, as he felt sure from the description given him and those he had read.
He produced the trade card Olive had provided him with. She looked at it and without a word, without a flicker of expression on those harsh features of hers or in her pale and vivid eyes, she banged the door in his face.
“Well, that's that and not too promising,” said Bobby to himself, and knocked again, though very gently, almost timidly, for he had no desire to be accused of making a disturbance. Not Caesar's wife herself must be more carefully above reproach than must be a policemanâespecially a detective-sergeant wistfully looking for promotion.
He waited and presently, a good deal to his surprise, the door opened once more, and there was Lady Alice again, formidable looking as ever, but speaking in a comparatively mild, almost an apologetic tone of voice.
“Come in,” she said. “The 'phone rang.”
He followed her into a small room that had, however, the advantage both of possessing a balcony itself, one that gave a fine view over the park, and of having no balcony above, since this was the topmost floor, to cut off such light as the dull London skies usually afford.
The room was an odd mixture. Cushions and knick-knacks, a telephone cover in the shape of an absurd fluffy rabbit, flowers, a sewing basket, evident care to secure a harmony of colouring, betrayed the woman; a business-like-looking desk, a bookcase filled with dictionaries and works of reference, a shelf of box files, a typewriter and a waste-paper basket filled to the brim, suggested the writer; maps on the walls with routes on them picked out in red, hanging weapons, some odd-looking carvings and other curios, photographs of distant cities, a rare skin or two upon the floor, all spoke of travel. Bobby noticed, too, hanging over the mantelpiece, in a prominent position, a broad-bladed, slightly-curved, formidable-looking knife: He wondered if that were the knife Lady Alice was said to have wrested from the hand of an Arab who had attacked her and with it to have dealt the intruder his death blow.
She saw him looking at it and for a moment her steady, expressionless gaze wavered. There was a box of cigarettes on the table. She took one of the cigarettes and pushed the box over to him with a gesture of invitation.
“Well, Mr, Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen,” she said, “what do you want?”
“Oh, thank you,” said Bobby, helping himself to a cigarette and allowing to appear no trace of surprise, slightly disconcerted though he was to find himself thus recognized. Then an explanation occurred to him as he remembered Martin in the entrance hall and Lady Alice's remark that her 'phone had rung. Evidently Martin had used the house 'phone to warn Lady Alice of Bobby's arrival; and that meant both that Martin was in fact in Lady Alice's employ, and that there was something Martin knew which made him think it possible Scotland Yard might be interested in her activities.
Interesting deductions, Bobby thought. He said lightly,
“Oh, a detective-sergeant only on duty and I'm not on duty now. I suppose Mr. Martin told you my name?”
It was now Lady Alice's turn to try not to show herself slightly disconcerted. Bobby thought she was distinctly less successful than he hoped he had been, for her pale eyes flashed at him a sudden look and the thin line of her close-pressed lips parted for a moment to show her strong and even teeth. It was as though the look flashed a demand to know how he knew that, as if the thin lips had parted to let escape a breath of astonishment. Then almost at once her features assumed again their usual harsh expression and Bobby knew they would betray to him her thoughts no more. He wondered if it was because her self-control were less perfect than it seemed, or because her surprise had been so complete, or because there was something in her connection with Martin it was pressingly important to concealâespecially from a policemanâthat she had been less successful than himself in concealing her feelings.
“Sit down,” she said, jerking her head at a chair. “You saw Martin as you came in, didn't you? He said he saw you. I suppose you know who he is?”
“I have come across him once or twice,” Bobby answered carefully. “Please understand that I know nothing against him. So far as police records are concerned, his is perfectly clear. But I think I may say that in my personal opinion it would be wise to exercise considerable caution in any dealings with him.”
“Just put that in plain English, please,” ordered Lady Alice. “Official rigmarole makes me sick.”
“Official rigmarole,” retorted Bobby, “is the official way of exercising the considerable caution I suggested.”
“You mean Martin's a scoundrel?”
“If I said so, it would probably be actionable,” Bobby pointed out. “I merely suggest caution in dealing with him and I'm afraid I must ask you to let it go at that.”
“I can take care of myself,” retorted Lady Alice.
“Oh, yes,” agreed Bobby. “You've only to look round this room to see that,” He paused and looked thoughtfully at the cigarette he had accepted, “You know,” he said, “it's an odd thing, but I can assure you half the cases that we get, have to do with people quite capable of looking after themselves.”
Lady Alice permitted herself a contortion of her features that might have been a smile had there been any mirth in it.
“I don't know if you have any brains, Mr. Detective,” she said. “It isn't likely, police haven't as a rule. But you've got a sort of thick-headed common sense about you.”
“It is,” Bobby permitted himself to remark, “the official substitute for brains.”
“I know perfectly well Martin's a rat,” Lady Alice said, “and he knows perfectly well I'll twist his neck for him if he tries any tricks on me.”