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(Saturday, March 6th)
THE RIDDLE OF THE MARIONETTES
Let us recall merely that the spellbinder uses a little figure . . . and to make that figure more like the bewitched person, they sought to insert into the wax objects that had been part of him—such as parings of hair or nails. Then, piercing the image with needles, scratching it with thorns, it was believed that, sympathetically, the person himself would be injured.
History is full of tales of bewitchment by images; Enguerrand de Marigny tried to make Count Charles de Valois perish in this way. At Paris, in 1574, a nobleman, in whose house was found an image pierced in head and heart, was executed. La Mole and Coconas tried to bring about the death of Charles IX by this means. . . .
Not the least remarkable fact of the marionette murders was the particularly tangled and obscure manner in which the business began. In this way, it differed widely from the other cases which have from time to time absorbed the attention of my friend, Jeffery Blackburn. In these, the problem which beset the chronicler was the collocation of the data in such a manner as to clarify the main points and knit the many threads into some form of Ariadnean line which would guide the reader from the heart of the maze. But in the case of the mannikin killings the difficulty lies in finding some focal point, if one may call it so, for the correct perspective on the events that gathered about that lonely old house in the Exmoor Valley.
It is not that there is a paucity of contacting points. Rather, the opposite is true. So cluttered is the entrance way with sidetracks and useless culs-de-sac that I feel I must walk delicately as Agag, lest I lose myself and my reader in the swamp of irriguous detail or trip our feet on the snapping branches of irrelevant fact.
Did the sinister business have its genesis in that ill-omened and bewilderingly coincidental plunge into space taken by the acidulous Miss Beatrice, when her crippled feet fouled the staircase at Rochester House and thus begin a grim chain of events that are, to this day, almost unparalleled in criminological history? Did it begin with that innocent present given by old Professor Reinersmann to the Rochester family, the gift of those pretty toys that later became known throughout the country as the Dolls of Death? Or were these incidents merely part of a ghastly intermission, entr’actes in a tragedy that had its real opening at the end of the last century, when Cornelius Rochester’s wife passed on, leaving her husband with a secret that was to cause three deaths and contrive at the near-execution of a fourth innocent creature?
Blackburn has waved aside my appeal for advice. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I persuaded him to allow me to publish the true facts surrounding the mysterious deaths in the Rochester family. His reluctance is understandable. The truth is so incredible, so strange in its revelation of what the human brain can conceive, that not even the logical explanation disclosed by my friend could rob the tragedies of the clinging murk of witchcraft which had sullied each death. And if, after reading this account, you think that this dark mixture of murder and black magic belongs to medieval times and could not possibly have spread a cloud of horror over an intelligent and highly civilized family, then I ask you to read what that eminent criminological authority, C. Lester Garson, has written on this subject. For it is Garson who describes the tragedies as “nothing less than the Malleus Maleficorum of the fifteenth century transported down to the present day, a veritable page from Remy’s Demonolatry perverted into a nightmare enigma which embraced thaumaturgy and spellbinding.” And he adds: “That a person could conceive and carry out a plan that is closely akin to a fairy tale told in terms of terror seems almost proof of the demoniacal possession said to govern the lives of less fortunate people.”
But enough of this preamble. Already I find myself straying into those verbose bypaths that I have sworn to avoid. I have looked over the copious notes, maps, and photographs placed at my disposal by my friend and, in despair, can think of no better place of introduction than the Akimbo Club, where Blackburn first contacted with the shadow that was already looming over the unhappy Rochester family.
The Akimbo is one of those rare gathering-places, exclusive without being offensively snobbish, interesting without being eccentric, up-to-date without being intolerant, and yet just intolerant enough to give it dignity. Here one may discuss “camera-panning” with a bespectacled film director, or you may murmur on the delights of Oriental poetry with a dark-skinned disciple of Tagore. Over coffee and cigarettes you will converse with a well-known scientist on the latest discoveries for prolonging life, or learn, from a young and brilliant analytical chemist, dark and obscure means of terminating it.
It is a restful, inviting place. The lounge is a wide and quiet room with deep chairs and thick carpets and concave walls that somehow suggest welcoming arms. There are cavernous fireplaces glowing and tall reading-lamps near favoured tables, lamps shedding a drowsy wedge of light like an isolating tent of amber, sanctuaries doubly blessed by the member who wishes to retire from the world and seek solace in sleep or soliloquy.
Thus Jeffery Blackburn became embroiled in the strange affair of the Rochester family by sheer chance. For some years, since he had relinquished the Chair of Higher Mathematics at Greymaster University in favour of the more fascinating pastime of criminology, Jeffery had used the gracious and well-appointed rooms at the Akimbo whenever he journeyed to London from his cottage on the gorse-covered slopes of Thursby village. On this particular occasion he had made the journey to visit his friend, William Jamison Read, Chief Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. Read had been a close friend of Blackburn’s father, and upon his death the Chief Inspector had transferred the same affection to the son. Of late years the friendship had been cemented by respect, since Jeffery’s mathematically inclined brain had helped Read to a successful conclusion on the more intricate cases that came under the Chief Inspector’s department. The younger man’s training brought a cold and calculating mind, skilled in ratiocination and syllogisms, to the industrious spade-work of his official companion.
But he was destined not to see his friend. Read had, a week previously, taken charge of a murder case at Hartlepool, and there was little chance of his return for some days at least. Whereupon Jeffery turned his footsteps in the direction of the Akimbo, where he could plan his next move amid comfortable surroundings.
Blackburn was not in the least surprised to find Rollo Morgan in the lounge. Between these two there seemed a subtle and mysterious agreement which dictated they should meet at least once a year. They had been at Oxford together, had come up the same year, and their rooms faced each other at the top of a long winding staircase. But for this accident of propinquity it is probable that they would never have become friends, for in nature and temperament they were poles apart. While Jeffery frequented the Bodleian, Rollo was out on some wild escapade or cheerfully baiting a Sub-Dean. However, shortly after Rollo’s occupation of his stair-room, the chance request of a box of matches began an acquaintance that ripened to friendship, and the young men spent much of their time in each other’s rooms.
This friendship received a temporary set-back when Rollo was sent down for his continued breaking of bounds. He then bought himself a passage on a windjammer and travelled to Australia by this adventurous though uncomfortable means. Followed a hiatus of some eighteen months, after which Jeffery, holiday-making in Genoa, ran across him in the office of a well-known shipping agency. But apparently the highly coloured travel posters which decked his sanctum proved too stimulating for Morgan’s wanderlust. Six months later he left for South America, and Blackburn received infrequent letters bearing strange stamps and stranger postmarks.
During the later years, however, this wandering young man had settled down in his home country again. Thirty-five years of age found him the athletic type running to seed, with more than the suspicion of a double chin and a corpulence that might soon be an undeniable bulge. They looked the exact antithesis as they greeted each other—Jeffery, tall, lean, and sinewy, his face shadowed with a pedantic gravity relieved only by the gentle mockery of his grey eyes; Morgan, plump, pink, and grinning, rather like a particularly experienced and knowing cherub. They shook hands, and Jeffery, pulling up a chair, ordered drinks.
“Must be close on two years since I saw you,” he remarked, lighting a cigarette. “What have you been doing all the time?”
Rollo made a grimace. “Stewing in a study all day,” he complained. He patted his waistline regretfully. “I’m getting fat as a pig on it, too. Round of golf twice a week and an occasional game of tennis is the only exercise I get. Except on a typewriter—I get hours of that!” He paused and glanced at his companion. “I’m a private secretary, you know.”
“I didn’t. Who are you working for?”
“Old Professor Rochester.”
Blackburn’s tone conveyed surprise. “Not old Cornelius Rochester, the demonology student?”
Rollo nodded. “That’s the chappie. Remember Lambert, the undergrad who was bitten by the archaeology bug at college? He was that clinking good three-quarter in the rugger team—”
“I remember. Stacy Lambert.”
“That’s the man. He’d run across the Prof. on his wanderings and happened to hear him mention that he wanted a secretary. He breathed a word in my ear and I applied.” Morgan grinned and spread his hands. “Honesty, industry, and personality did the rest!”
The drinks were brought. Jeffery, glass in hand, spoke again. “Why should Rochester want a secretary? I always understood that, because of the queer nature of his researches, he preferred to work alone.”
“So he did—until the beginning of last year,” Morgan explained. “Now time is taking its toll. Old Corney must be close on sixty-five if he’s a day. And gadding about foreign climates hasn’t improved his health. His heart’s rather rocky. He had a nasty attack about three months ago, and since that time the family physician has forbidden him the stairs. So he’s had his study shifted to the ground floor.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Writing an opus which he hopes will keep the name of Rochester immortal through the ages. It’s a weighty and extremely learned tome on Demonology in the Twentieth Century—a Résumé of the Darker Side of Nature. And that,” added Rollo modestly, “is where I come in. From nine o’clock each morning until dewy eve you’ll find me pounding away on my typewriter, adding chapter after chapter to Cornelius’ lifework.”
“How much is completed?” Jeffery asked.
“It’s just started,” Rollo explained. “You see, it isn’t like working in the usual manner. Old Corney gets ideas at all sorts of odd times and writes his notes on anything that comes to hand. Backs of envelopes, visiting-cards, timetables, even menus that he snitches from restaurants. And it’s my job to gather it together and decipher it. Sometimes the notes are written in Latin, sometimes in Greek or French. It all depends what particular period and country Corney happens to be studying at the time.” He grinned. “Thank God my classical education is fairly complete.”
“Do you like it?” Blackburn asked casually.
His companion shrugged. “It’s a job,” he returned. “I suppose I should be thankful, especially when there are ten thousand chappies with much better qualifications than mine hunting feverishly through the Want Ads. every morning. But don’t get the idea that my work’s anything of a sinecure. The patrician nose is kept pretty close to the grindstone, I assure you!”
Blackburn blew a smoke ring. “The patrician nose appears to be very far from the grindstone at the moment,” he observed mildly.
Rollo Morgan did not reply for a moment. He drained his glass and lit a cigarette. Over the match-flame, his eyes were sombre.
“Work’s been postponed for a while,” he said quietly. “There’s been a death in the family—and the old man’s rather upset about it. It was his sister, Beatrice. She was an invalid and pretty close to the Prof.” He shrugged. “As a matter of fact, I’ve taken the chance to get a few days off. The place—well—it rather depresses me. . . .” His voice tailed off. He looked at his friend as if about to make another remark. Instead, he turned away and puffed quickly, nervously almost, at his cigarette.
Blackburn sat watching him, noticing the anxious wrinkle that had formed between Rollo’s brows. It was a new line on the plump face and he was interested. He sat up abruptly and, leaning forward, spoke. His voice was crisp.
“Something’s on your mind, Rollo. What is it?”
For just a moment the other hesitated. Then he crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and began fiddling with the ashes, brushing them into small heaps. He did not look up as he spoke.
“You don’t believe in witchcraft, I suppose?” Rollo raised his eyes to meet Jeffery’s astonished expression and he hurried on self-consciously. “I know it sounds ridiculous—crazy, but you’ve got to understand I’m quite serious. . . .” His voice slurred and broke. The pause that followed was strained and awkward. Then Morgan turned and faced his companion. “Jeff,” he said, “are you working on anything at the moment?”
“Nothing in particular—”
“Then I want you to come back to Rochester House with me. Because there’s something mighty peculiar going on down there.”
Blackburn said slowly, his eyes on the other’s reddening face: “That doesn’t sound like you, Rollo. What’s the trouble?”
Morgan made a little movement of his shoulders, as if attempting to dislodge something that crouched there. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “It may be all coincidence and yet. . . .” Again he paused.
Jeffery frowned, mentally deploring his friend’s newly acquired habit of broken sentences, but Rollo was tumbling on desperately. He had placed a hand on Jeffery’s knee and his voice was none too steady.
“Blackburn, what would you say if I told you that not two hundred miles from London there’d been a recrudescence of medieval witchcraft?”
“I’ll reserve comment until I hear more,” the other said calmly. He beckoned an attendant and gave an order. When fresh drinks were brought, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
“Go on,” he invited.
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