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by Rupert Penny
CHIEF-INSPECTOR EDWARD BEALE—doubtless—turned the en-velope over idly in his hand before opening it. He was, almost certainly, wondering what could have induced myself, his friend Anthony Purdon, to write at all in the first place, and at such obviously great length in the second. It may have crossed his mind for a moment that perhaps when he looked inside the envelope he would find only a batch of newspaper cuttings, or a couple of ties to brighten the landscape when he was off duty; but he would have been wrong. What he had just received from me was twenty-four closely written pages.
I suspect that before he began to read my letter he poked the fire into a blaze and drew his arm-chair nearer. The first days of January were bitterly cold, and the nights worse, and the feet of policemen are notoriously delicate, even if they have long ago ceased pacing the dark lonely streets and peering dutifully at all that moves nocturnally. He would also have been smoking a pipe: that is a safe bet.
January 10th, 1938.
Forgive the shock—I’m certain it’ll be one. Forgive also absence of weather reports, health enquiries, and so on. There is a great deal to write about that’s more interesting. I told you at Christmas that I was going into the country for a week or two, but not why or wherefore. I had half promised not to, but now have full permission.
Did you ever hear of Major Francis Adair, D.S.O.? He was in the Intelligence Service during the War, and for quite a while afterwards, and was one of their crack experts on codes and ciphers and such-like inventions of Beelzebub. Later he went abroad, 1925-33, poking his nose into a number of pies: South America, China, Egypt. Then he came home after a bad bout of fever, and settled—surprisingly—in one of the genteeler parts of Surrey. He’s a queer old boy: perhaps not really so old, say about sixty, but definitely queer. He’s got one of those beaky faces with a distinguished thatch of white hair, and his voice is very parade-ground and H. M. Bateman. I’m sure he’d have only had to bark twice to be a general, but he never seems to have bothered. At all events, he’s queer—sorry for the repetition. For one thing, he’s mean—really mean about some things, like housekeeping money and tobacco. I’ve kept him in cigarettes for the past week and been expected to, what’s more. Yet he isn’t wholly mean, because over big things he can be quite casual and careless. That comes later, though.
To tell the story right way up: Adair is a widower with one real daughter and one adopted one, former called Tilly and latter Lina Hipple, former a pasty spectacled wishy-washy creature who smells of carbolic soap and invisible curates and dresses like a jumble sale, latter very soignee and scented, an orchid drenched in patchouli. The ‘hip’ of Hipple is much in evidence; likewise neighbouring features. She has long dark eyelashes to match her dark hair, and she droops them at you—yea, even at me, forty all but and ugly as Anubis. Still, I am male, so I suppose I do to practise on.
Adair also has one secretary, a smart fellah by the name of Hinkson, all knife-edged trousers and cuffs and brilliantine; he’d never be my choice, but apparently he knows how to make himself useful. Then there’s a butler, Andrews, rather depressing on the whole, though with his point of interest—later; and a chauffeur-gardener, Judd, a surly-looking brute but a wizard at the wheel. He has a wife, and I’ve seen her, but I can’t remember what she looks like—very faded and meek, I fancy. As well there is a couple of hundredweight or so of cook, of no particular merit as such, and one Buck, a bodyguard.
Yes, the address is Gloucestershire, not gangsterland, but that’s where I should think he originally came from. His real name is Kass, so he says, but nobody ever calls him anything but Buck. He’s small, thick, nearly bald, has steady blue-black eyes, hardly any fingernails, and bad teeth. I wouldn’t very much like to quarrel with him unless I were allowed the first three shots, but he’s pleasant enough, though he and the shiny Hinkson don’t get on too well. As for the reason for his presence, that will come out in due course.
To complete the party there’s Roger Montague, another queer bird. He must be considerably older than Adair, and it seems they’ve known one another since the end of last century, but you can scarcely imagine a bigger contrast. One’s big, bluff, a civilized bully—that about sums up Adair, for all he’s my host; and the other’s small and thin and delicate, with semi-transparent flesh and a bored cynical smile. He doesn’t say much, but it’s often to the point, and mostly tart in flavour. Nor is he at all active—partly because of his poor digestion, I think. He lives chiefly on dry toast and barley-water, with an occasional blow-out of weak tea and steamed fish: enough to make any one bored and cynical, I agree.
And now, what in the world are we all doing here? Well, that should probably have come first, but my letters never work that way.
Not to conceal the facts of the matter any longer, we’re all taking part in a treasure hunt.
Real treasure, we hope, and certainly a real hunt.
If you can persuade yourself to read on, I’ll explain how it all comes about. I said that Adair was a code expert: he reads Bacon’s bilateral cipher as easily as you or I might read Areopagitica or Sordello. Likewise with the various shorthands—Pitman, Dutton, Sloan-Duployan, Gregg, Gabelsberger, Newton-Rapid, and all the rest of them. Well, about eighteen months ago he was nosing round at a country auction sale when he came across an old leather-bound volume containing about three hundred pages of a kind (of shorthand) he hadn’t met before. He bought the thing for ten bob, as an ordinary person might buy a book of crossword puzzles, to provide amusement for the next rainy day. However, even for Adair it wasn’t as simple as that. In fact, it took him quite a time to get started at all, and once he’d managed that it wasn’t plain sailing, because the author hadn’t been very particular about keeping to his own rules: needless to say, it was a private shorthand.
The translation, which I’ve seen, isn’t of much interest except for one part of about twenty pages, which relates the history of the Mauberley family. Its last survivor, Jasper, was born in 1634, just after this house was built, and died in 1706, and all his life he was afflicted with a hump on his back and an impediment in his speech. These handicaps seem to have soured his nature, because from early manhood to the end of his days he lived here almost alone, never going anywhere, never having visitors, and of course never marrying. In short, he emerges from the story as a cantankerous crippled miser.
When he passed on, however, there wasn’t a trace of his wealth to be found; nor, naturally, many people who minded much—no surviving relatives, as I’ve said. Some half-hearted sort of a search was made by inquisitive neighbours, but nothing resulted, and it was eventually agreed that he must after all have been poor instead of mean. The author of the leather-bound shorthand diary disagrees, though. He, by the way, was a Boon: Thomas Stanway Boon, Esquire, 1741-1788, also of Mauberley Grange. He produces very little in the way of fact to support his opinion, but twaddles a bit about having seen a mysterious hunchbacked figure in his room one night wearing an expression ‘of the utmost secrecy and ill-natured satisfaction’. The visitation left him convinced that somewhere in this rambling old place was Jasper Mauberley’s treasure, and he made frantic but unsuccessful attempts to locate it. In the end he gave the job up as useless, merely relating the facts in his home-made shorthand, repeating his opinions, and wishing the heartiest good luck to anybody that cared to have a go in the future.
‘I am persuaded,’ he says ‘that the clue to the whole matter should be found in the panelled room at the near end of the Long Corridor upon the ground floor. There are still living, though old now and not wholly in their wits, it may well be, those who declare that in this room alone did Jasper Mauberley pass the twenty years before his death, bed-fast towards the end. I incline to believe that the treasure, if any exist, will not be discovered there, nevertheless, but in another place: but that the old man, confined within the house and unable to visit his secret hoard, may well have concealed somewhere about his room that which will point the way, if there should be any to find it, or, having found, to interpret the same.’
Now, I think I told you earlier—can’t be bothered to make sure—that Adair’s got plenty of money. He’s also got a strain of avarice in him above the usual—I know I mentioned that. Yet it isn’t the niggling avarice of the man who’s afraid to spend twopence on the chance of winning a shilling, because he might lose. Adair would spend his twopence, and then devote his whole energies to making sure he did win. So with the present case: the idea of a treasure hidden somewhere, his for the finding, appealed to him.
Useless to suggest—I did try—that maybe there never was one, or that anyway there’s been time for a dozen people to get in before him. He wanted the treasure, therefore it was obtainable. It was obtainable—therefore it was merely a matter of time before he would be reckoning its value. Mule’s logic, perhaps, but the sort that won’t be daunted. He at once made enquiries about this Mauberley Grange, found that it was in the market, and got a fortnight’s option on it at a price of £6000. The last Boon died in 1933, and the place has been vacant ever since. It stands in its own ground of three hundred acres on the Hereford-Gloucester border, can’t be seen from any road because of trees, and might easily go unsuspected by a stranger, and the cultivated part is in a simply shocking state.
Even twenty years ago the house must have been a fine place, though considerably built on from its original design, and not always to match, but the last of the Boons seems to have let it go completely, and four years’ vacancy haven’t helped. Parts of the roof are in ruins, the west wing was half burnt down in 1934, the drains are primitive, and a lot of the interior woodwork has been eaten away. The open parts near the house are shockingly neglected, too: orchards overgrown to glory, lawns like a wilderness, the drive little better than a cart-track. I can’t decide whether £6000 was cheap or dear. There are forty-two rooms in the place, and a hundred acres and more of so-so timber, and the prospect of a treasure: what do you think?
Well, next I’d better explain about Buck the bodyguard, and the reason for his presence. Half way through the translation of the diary—in fact, about half way through the tale of Jasper Mauberley—Adair had occasion to sack his secretary for theft. That was roughly eight months ago, the chap’s name was Warner, and in his place Hinkson was engaged, chiefly on account of his knowledge of ciphers: not by any manner of means as extensive as Adair’s own, but far superior to most people’s. Then, a couple of months later, during temporary absence of owner and household, there was a burglary at his Surrey home. Nothing seemed to have been taken, and it was Hinkson who suggested what might have happened. He was positive that somebody had handled the diary—carelessly not locked up—during their absence, and his idea was that the dismissed Warner had sneaked back, photographed the rest of the stuff, and might now be hard at work solving it. He’d be pretty familiar with the key to the shorthand, of course, having worked with Adair.
The old boy didn’t take the suggestion very seriously at the time, but at the end of the same month, September, when negotiations for the purchase of the Grange were on the point of completion, the agents tried to make a hitch. Apparently they’d received an urgent telephone call from a man calling himself Duffy, offering £7000 hard cash for an immediate deal. Fortunately Adair was covered by his option, which he immediately exercised, and Duffy never materialized, so nobody knew who he really was, or even if. Hinkson declared him to be Warner, and persuaded Adair, but I have a sort of suspicion myself that he was that not too rare creature, a house-agent’s myth.
However, as I said, Hinkson shouted, ‘Warner, by cripes!’, the Major duly echoed him—and the result was Buck. Where he dug the little chap up from I can’t say: I don’t like to ask Adair, and Buck himself just grinned when I tried to pump him, and murmured something about a game of poker on a ship. He carries a gun—for which Adair somehow wangled him a certificate, so don’t start worrying—and he can use it, too. He demolished a slug on a gate at about fifteen yards very neatly. I wouldn’t bet he’d never been on the wrong side of the law, and as a matter of fact I’ve tried my damndest to get his fingerprints, in case you’ve got a copy in the family album, but without success. Can it be that the little wretch suspects my innocent ruses? Could anybody?
Well, there isn’t much more m the way of facts. Here we all are, searching rabidly for the clue to the treasure, but so far empty-handed. If you’ve got nothing to do, I could probably get you an invitation to join us. To be honest, I rather wish you were here you might be able to see farther than I can, or else tell me there isn’t anything to see. I’m the least bit worried, Ted: not for myself, but by the atmosphere. There’s something wrong with it, and I can’t say what, and it annoys me.
Lina and Hinkson, now: am I only imagining, or is there something between them? Again, Buck and Hinkson: they don’t like one another—why? Item, Tilly: Montague’s the only person in the house barring self, who do my humble best, who gives her a civil word. Adair at times is fiendishly rude to her: you can see him preferring Lina almost audibly. And anyway, who the devil is Lina? ‘Daddy was a very dear friend of the Major.’ ‘Her father was a spy, I think.’ (From Tilly, that: but of course Adair himself was one too, only on our side, which takes away the nasty taste.) ‘Hipple? My dear boy, how should I know? Obviously a personage, to judge by results.’ (That’s Montague: but surely he ought to know—isn’t he one of Adair’s oldest cronies? Or isn’t he?)
Item, Judd the chauffeur: why should he have one of Lina’s handkerchiefs in his pocket? That he did, I know; it dropped out, and her perfume is obtrusive. I returned it to her, and she didn’t shift a hair: yet it was a green silk specimen that she couldn’t possibly have forgotten—far too vivid a green. Judd had found it, and meant to return it at the first opportunity? All right: why was it in an opened postmarked envelope addressed to her? Item the last: why does Andrews the butler write lefthanded, although he uses his other one for everything else? Is that natural, or significant?
But enough of these pointless speculations. As you aren’t here, you can’t possibly tell me the answers. I must turn in now, because we’ve worked hard. The finder of the clue is to receive a tenth part of the treasure, and you can see our several faces glistening with greed when we think nobody’s looking. Except Montague’s—he doesn’t believe in treasures, or says he doesn’t. All for now. Don’t get put on a murder case, or I shan’t know which way to turn.
Yours ever, Tony.
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