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SEALED ROOM MURDER
by Rupert Penny
MY UNCLE is a cunning old man. He always makes his clients repeat their stories, and often this precaution has brought out vital points without which we should have had no success whatever. The first account of their troubles is told to him, the second to the person he deputes to remedy those troubles. Later the two of them consult, examining one another’s information for discrepancies, oversights, or plain downright lies.
I ought to explain that my uncle is the head of an Enquiry Bureau: by which—for it is his own designation—he means that he runs a private detective agency. When I asked him once the reason for the fancy name he looked down his hooked nose and was very short with me.
“Any fool can make enquiries, Douglas,” he said, “but would your best friend call you a sleuth? I doubt it—I rather doubt it.”
Now there, though I find the admission distasteful, I think my uncle hit the mark. Formerly I held a different opinion, nourished by hope rather than experience, but after the events which I shall relate I feel that the term ‘enquiry agent’ about sums up my capabilities. Whether I shall do better as a story-teller remains to be seen.
My uncle’s name is Thomas Butt, and I am his nephew Douglas Merton. My mother was the eldest of his five sisters, and the first to die. He has a suite of rooms in Chancery Lane, and he employs eleven persons permanently. I have worked for him for six years, ever since I came down from Oxford, and I don’t think I’d change my job for double the salary elsewhere. Still, that may be because nobody so far has offered me more than half the amount I get from him.
The popular idea about private detectives, I find, is that they are figures of fun, natives of farce rather than of life, persons who disguise themselves heavily and follow erring husbands all the way to the wrong bedroom door. The picture isn’t wholly without truth, perhaps, but it leaves out more than it puts in. For my own part I’ve never worn even a false eyebrow, and if ever I followed an erring husband it was done unconsciously. As far as possible my uncle leaves divorce alone. He says the laws relating to it are fantastically ill-natured and stupid, and the less he has to do with their hypocritical smugness the better.
But I must stop talking about him, because the main character in my story is Mrs. Harriet Steele, who lived meanly and died hard. If she had good points she hid them as carefully, it seemed, as a miser his money. Perhaps she herself appreciated them: when she was alone in her over-furnished bedroom, it may be, prodding myopically at a jig-saw puzzle or winding her precious clocks; but no one will ever be sure. Perhaps George Rice, her brother, knows of something in her favour: a kindly act performed in childhood, if only the offer of a surplus sweet or a word of sympathy for the death of a favourite pet. But George Rice isn’t the sort of man one could ask about a personal matter like that, not with whisky the price it is. All things considered, I should say that only my uncle now has a good word for her: very occasionally, when he is feeling sentimental. There can be no doubt that for each of the nine people who habitually slept under her roof in the weeks preceding her murder she was an object of dislike, and in some cases of contempt, active animosity, and persistent bitter hatred.
She first came to our offices in Chancery Lane on Thursday August 8th last. The date deserves a passing mention, because it means that we lived then in a world still precariously at peace. Dantzig was still a part of Poland, and Poland still autonymous, not yet shared bloodily between the sickle and the swastika. Of what has happened since, and is happening yet, I say nothing. It is too well known, too keenly experienced by us all. This is a tale of the old days, before Europe crackled and went up in smoke.
If that world, but a few months distant from us by the calendar, seems unreal, hazy, remote as the era of hansom cabs and moustache cups, I am sorry; but truth, however humbly, must be served. Mrs. Harriet Steele, while she lived, was above all a thing of flesh and blood, a solid animate mass which ate and slept and rose unrepentant, which dyed its hair and plagued its associates and weighed thirteen stone seven in its unimaginable nudity. I shall find it difficult enough to present the woman as I knew her in August 1939. I cannot possibly prolong her life until September and risk transmuting her grossness to a thing of spectral inconsequence.
I happened to have the door open as she went by on her way to my uncle’s private office, and I remember wondering if I had really seen her or if I could conceivably have been dozing. It was a warm day, almost a hot one. I shouldn’t have expected even a thin woman to wear a fur coat, far less a stout one who had scarcely enough breath left for the last few stairs. I glanced uncertainly at our senior secretary, Miss Prince, and realized at once that I hadn’t been asleep. Her surprise was evidently as great as my own, and she permitted herself one of her rare smiles when the sound of the visitor’s footsteps died. She made no comment, however, and I wasn’t sufficiently interested to ask questions. Instead I returned to the task in hand; but half an hour later my uncle sent for me, and I was introduced to Mrs. Harriet Steele.
She was a short woman, five foot two without shoes according to the post-mortem report, and I have already said that her weight was over thirteen stone, the information coming from the same source, yet in life she looked less out of proportion than would seem likely. She was bulky, but not positively bulging. Her fair hair, its colour patently artificial, peeped out coyly from under her blue hat. Below her unbuttoned beaver coat was a white frock which drew attention to her heavy bosom by a series of irritating tucks and pleats. Her eyes were green, set rather deep and unpleasantly hard. She regarded you as if she were calculating the price of your honesty, but that may have been because she was short-sighted. Her lips were designed to minimize the fullness of her face, and vividly matched her enamelled fingernails; her hand felt sticky, and she exuded a noticeable scent of lilac. I couldn’t imagine why my uncle should inflict her acquaintance upon me.
“My nephew, Douglas Merton,” he murmured, looking more than ever like a benevolent parrot.
“Delighted, I’m sure,” said the lady, her voice a rich contralto erected upon a cockney subsoil.
“He’ll give himself the pleasure of calling upon you at three o’clock this afternoon,” continued my uncle, while I smiled emptily and reflected that her rings must be worth at least a couple of hundred pounds.
“Three o’clock,” repeated the lady. “Very well, I dare say that can be fitted in.”
“Why the ornate language?” I enquired later, when she had swept away. “And I shan’t get much pleasure from visiting her.”
“You’re not going on pleasure,” I was told. “You’re going on business.”
Then my uncle sighed gustily, fiddled with a paper knife, took out his cigarette case, and stared at me very hard.
“When a dream turns into a nightmare,” he said, “it’s time to wake up. But what the devil do you do if you’ve been awake all the while, eh? If you knew it was a nightmare, at least potentially, but were too cursed proud to admit it?”
Fortunately I could find an answer. He had obviously had some sort of a shock, and that in itself was unusual enough to be worth taking seriously.
“You’d better pretend today’s your birthday instead of next Monday,” I advised, “and just sit quiet till I fetch your present.”
It was a bottle of Napoleon brandy, a legacy from my godmother. She doubtless meant well, but my palate has never done me credit: I can tell wines from spirits, and that’s about all. However, my uncle was pleased, very much so. After a few appreciative sips he began to seem more like himself, and reluctantly consented to explain his riddle.
“I’ve never bothered you much about my speckled past,” he started, “and I don’t intend to break a good rule even for stuff like this. It’ll do to be going on with that in 1920 I was practically penniless, and pretty fed up with life. My war gratuity had disappeared, ex-officers of forty-five with no capital and no particular qualifications were as cheap as monkey-nuts, and I was hanged if I’d crawl round the family holding out my pockets and whining. I don’t say I’d have starved rather than do that, mind you, not starved till it really hurt, but I was ready to go the limit first. Hence the temporary existence of Billings & Butt, cross-talk comedians.”
He saw my eyes widen, and sat back.
“You wouldn’t know about that sort of thing, not from the inside,” he went on, stroking his nose and smiling slightly. “You’ve always been on the sheltered side of the door—your mother made sure of that. It wasn’t an easy life, especially when you bear in mind that we were probably the worst pair of comics who ever footed a bill. The funniest part of our act was the way my name fitted in with my job, and you couldn’t really expect an audience to giggle much at that. Still, we got ourselves booked with a travelling variety show—the kind that stays a week in provincial hippodromes and leaves empty suitcases and exasperated landladies behind it. Our place on the programme was always first turn after the interval, when people were still sozzling in the bar or stumbling over other people’s knees, and we hardly ever got a laugh big enough to wake a nervous baby. Still, as I say, we existed, and we weren’t sacked, so I suppose we couldn’t have been beyond all bearing.
“Well, in due course we came to Eastbourne, and that’s where the story starts. One of our better turns had drowned itself, though I forget why, and after a good deal of frantic telephoning and wiring, our boss had fixed up with an agency to send down a substitute. Or substitutes, rather—it was a double act. It meant rushing off new posters, of course, and a lot of back-biting about where these outsiders should go on and how long for, but old Levy never minded a squabble. He wasn’t really happy unless he was cross.
“They were acrobatic dancers. The programme described them as Jack and Jill, Rascals on Roller-Skates, and to give them full marks they made the rest of the show seem pretty shoddy. Not only because they were clever on their feet, but because compared with us they looked like a couple of peacocks that had strayed into a barnyard. They were young, which many of us weren’t, they had better costumes and a better idea of how to wear them, and the girl especially was worth any amount of second glances. Her legs were the sort you only see nowadays in advertisements for silk stockings, and she showed more of ’em than any stocking ever covered. A lot more.
“Naturally one of their items was the pail-of-water business, Jack wearing an Eton suit and Jill all dolled up in pink muslin with bows and sashes and so on. The hill was a bit feeble, because you can’t do much on a small stage, but they made up for that in other ways. First they struggled up it—plenty of pushing and shoving there, and rather vulgar. Then they let down a rope into an imaginary well, and hauled up the pail, and after that they began to come down again towards the footlights, Jack gliding very gently and gracefully and Jill hitched on behind. And then, as the rhyme says, Jack would fall: a real cropper, with drum-work to make it sound better, and real water too. The stuff used to shoot off somewhere into the wings—when it didn’t go over the orchestra. And to finish the thing properly, Jill came tumbling after, sliding and slipping, trying her damnedest to keep her balance and all the time you knew she wouldn’t. Very clever it was, too. Only a thundering good skater could have done it—a bad one would have split herself in half or broken her neck. But sooner or later her feet would skid right off the floor, the skates spinning like mad, and down she’d come on top of Jack, all surprised and innocent and hurt, with her legs anywhere and next week’s washing in full view.”
My uncle paused, apparently savouring the memory he had evoked. He stared at this thumbnail as if it were a mirror in which he could see pictures, and presently continued.
“She wasn’t the only one who fell, either,” he said, rather shamefaced. “Of course a man of forty-something ought to have known better, but this one didn’t. It’s ridiculous, really, when you come to think, losing your head because of a pretty face and figure and a pair of neat shins. Bah!
“Anyway, for a fortnight I expect I pestered her abominably, but without success. She had me summed up from the start, and she contrived to be civil and yet not give me the slightest encouragement. As a matter of fact I didn’t see much of her during the daytime. When she wasn’t practising or rehearsing she either lay in bed with a magazine or went out with Jack—he was as soft about her as I was, and he had more money. I forget his real name—Canning or Carson or some such: not a bad chap, but very little to him apart from his looks and his skating.
“And then, of course, my luck turned overnight. Your great-aunt Edith had a stroke, and for some reason I’ve never yet fathomed altered her will a bare twenty-four hours before she died. I no longer had to face innumerable cheap lodgings, train journeys every Sunday, perpetual angling for other people’s laughter. I’d come into cash—I could have some say in what happened to me.
“Well, I left the show practically on the spot, and if ever a man looked grateful it was Levy, our boss. He swore, of course, but he couldn’t help that—it was habit. Billings didn’t mind, either. She’d been secretly working up a solo act, and was glad of a chance to prove it.”
“You never told me Billings was a woman,” I remonstrated.
“Didn’t I?” said my uncle smoothly. “I must have forgotten. At all events, before I cleared out I behaved just about as you might expect. I took Jill on one side, blurted out my incredible news, and then proposed. Looking back now, I suppose I was hard hit. A kid fresh from school might have acted like that, but not a grown man, not if he had any sense left. Still, that’s what I did, and I was open to deserve all I got. But then, I always was lucky”—and he smiled for a moment to himself, as if he had a private understanding with fate.
“I gather she refused you?” I suggested.
“You gather right. Nicely, as that sort of thing’s done: no special reason given, the less said the better, and if I insisted on presenting her with a diamond watch she supposed she couldn’t very well refuse, could she? I’ve always wondered, though. Care to see a photograph of Jill?”
“Of course,” I agreed, and examined the crumpled postcard he extracted from his wallet. She had certainly been a good-looking girl, I thought: rather on the small side, but none the worse for that. In the photo she wore a sunbonnet and a child’s frock well above her dimpled knees. Sundry frills peeped impudently out to mock imagination. Her expression was one of demureness. I suspected she could have done with a good smacking.
“I should never have recognized her,” I said, as I returned his trophy, and my uncle snorted.
“You dirty dog, you’ve spoilt the whole story!” he grumbled. “Still, I dare say I was a bit obvious. Yes, that was Jill who came this morning, and now you understand what I meant by a dream turning into a nightmare. You see, part of me’s always regretted that I took no for an answer, and the other part’s been quietly thankful. She once showed me a family group, mother and father and two petrified children, and mother was enormous, and she also showed me mother as a girl her own age, and you could hardly have told them apart. If there’s one thing I’d hate to live with it’s a fat woman, but I’d cheerfully have taken the risk then. Well, well! One more sweet memory turned bad: but I do wish I knew why I escaped.”
“Perhaps I can find out, if I’m really to visit her this afternoon,” I murmured. “Or is that why I’m going?”
“No fear. And don’t go asking direct, because she’s a widow and I’m quite content as I am. No: I’ll tell you your job in a minute, but first I’ll give you her subsequent history. She left the stage—she called it that!—in 1925 to marry Andrew Steele, an insurance broker. There were no kids, he contracted consumption in 1935, and died abroad about eighteen months ago.
“Quite how he left his money she didn’t seem anxious to explain, but there’s not much doubt he was a rich man. By her rings and her clothes she looks to have all she could want—and quite possibly what other people want too, judging by her present troubles. It appears that all her husband’s relations live with her: a mother and three sisters of whom one’s a widow with two children. As well there’s her brother, George Rice, occupation unknown, and a couple of servants—nine persons in all. What you’re to do is to find which of them has been deliberately annoying her.”
“Thank you very much,” I said despondently. “It’ll be a change from insurance work, by the sound of things. You’re sure you wouldn’t rather go yourself?”
“Quite sure,” declared my uncle firmly.
“Very well: I suppose I can’t argue. Annoying her in what way?”
“To date, by cutting a lump out of a valuable mink coat, pouring ink on a drawerful of underclothes, and smashing a clock. She collects clocks.”
“That’ll be jolly. Striking clocks?”
(I hate the things, though I don’t know why.)
“I expect so. You could use cotton wool.”
“Is she the only one who’s suffered?”
“But no personal violence?”
“No hint about who did it?”
“Only that she says she wouldn’t put it past any of them.”
“And what happens when the culprit’s caught?”
“Optimistic!” murmured my uncle. “Wouldn’t it be more modest to say if? I don’t know—probably the gallows, if she had her way.”
I sighed: I quite like insurance work.
“Why come to us?” I asked.
“She didn’t think the police were suitable. She remembered my name, and reckoned there couldn’t be more than one Thomas Courtney Butt at a time.”
“One hopes not. But how did she find out you do the sort of job she wants done? Or get other people to do it, rather.”
“Heaven knows. I’ve passed on all I can—the rest’s up to you. But don’t forget two things,”—and my uncle tapped his desk in emphasis. “First, don’t let her come here again—I want to forget past follies. Second, find out why she didn’t marry me and I’ll raise you a quid a week.”
I nodded even more despondently.
“Second sight, probably,” I said. “Are we doing this for old times’ sake?”
“No: for hard cash, of which we’ve already had twenty pounds on account.”
“Well, that’s encouraging. And if it wouldn’t bore you to explain, just exactly what do we do to earn even twenty pence?”
“Oh, come!” expostulated my uncle after finishing his brandy. “Ask questions. Stare at ’em. Butter ’em up. Listen at keyholes. Steam open their letters. Set traps with black cotton. Find out if they talk in their sleep. Tickle ’em till they’d tell you anything bar their age. You don’t need me to teach you how to get round a pack of women. And one other thing; don’t go revealing her past history to any of the family. I promised her that solemnly. She’s a wealthy widow of mature years—well, say forty—and substantial build. She’s nothing whatever to do with a Rascal on Roller-Skates called Jill.”
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