These were a part of a playing I heard
Once, ere my love and my heart were at strife Love that sings and hath wings as a bird Balm of the wound and heft of the knife.
The Triumph of Time, Algernon Swinburne
Mrs. Witherspoon, widow of uncertain years and theatrical background, was taking tea in her refined house for paying gentlefolk in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. It was four o’clock on a warmish Friday afternoon. The month was October and the year was 1928 and she had no idea, as she reached for the last slice of fruitcake, that the worst moment of her life was a mere minute away.
A drop fell from the ceiling and plopped into her cup. She asked.
‘Oh, dear, that Mr. Christopher has let his bath run over again. I’ve told him and told him about that.’
Mr. Sheridan leapt to his feet, and Mrs. Witherspoon glared at him. ‘Not you, Mr. Sheridan, if you please.’
‘I’ll run up, shall I?’ offered Miss Minton, who was behind with her rent until another show should manifest itself and was consequently disposed to be helpful.
‘Yes, dear, you do that, but don’t open the door, will you? Mr. Christopher is so careless with doors and I won’t have no immodesty in my house.’ The voice was full, rich as the fruitcake and perfectly pitched to carry to the back row of the stalls. Miss Minton, who had been a showgirl and dancer since she was seventeen, grinned and went out. They heard her feet clatter on the uncarpeted stairs.
The company consisted of Mrs. Witherspoon, a magician called Robert Sheridan, a character actress whose stage name was Parkes and whose past, it was darkly hinted, would not bear examination, as well as the Miss Minton who had just departed on her mission.
The others were paying close attention to what they could hear of her progress along the corridor to the bathroom.
‘I say, Mr. Christopher,’ the girl called. ‘Hey!’ she added. They heard the bathroom door open with its characteristic creak. Mrs. Witherspoon tutted at the behaviour of modern girls and finished her cup of tea, brushing idly at another drop which had fallen on her hair. Miss Parkes hid a smile. Mr. Christopher was slim, moved like a dancer and had dark Valentino hair and finely cut features. Miss Parkes had watched Miss Minton chasing him for weeks; she would not miss an opportunity to corner him in the bath. And there would be a surprise in store for her when she did: a life in the chorus line, thought Miss Parkes, injured the modesty. The sounds of emptying water that they were expecting never came. Instead, Miss Minton ran back exclaiming, ‘He’s not there, Mrs. Witherspoon, and he hasn’t been there. The bath’s as dry as a chip.’
It was only then that they all looked at the ceiling.
A large red stain, like the ace of hearts, was spreading and dripping. No one even thought that it might be red wine. Mrs. Witherspoon put up a shaking hand and wiped her cheek, where another drop had fallen.
Her palm came away stained with blood.
She recalled, with dreadful inner turmoil, that she had finished her cup of tea.
# # #
The arrival of the police was not enough to drag Mrs. Witherspoon out of her place of concealment, so a very discomfited Constable Tommy Harris held a conversation with her through the door.
‘Whose room is just overhead?’ he asked desperately. A gasping retch was all his reply. Miss Parkes nodded at him and he left the door.
‘I can tell you about it. The poor old dear has realized that she’s drunk blood in her tea and that’s upsetting, wouldn’t you agree? The bathroom is upstairs and the adjoining room is Mr. Christopher’s. He is a circus performer and he is usually asleep until tea every day, because he performs at night. I’ve been up and tried his door but it’s locked.’
‘And who are you, Miss?’
‘My name is Amelia Parkes. I’m an actress and I live here.’
The constable eyed her narrowly. She was a middle-aged woman, with cropped brown hair, brown eyes, and the beautiful complexion of those who use greasepaint and seldom see the sun. The constable was new to the area; he was sure that he had seen that face before but he could not remember where. She did not assist him but smiled slightly. The constable thought that she had a really lovely smile.
‘Well, Miss, we’d better see about it,’ he said. ‘Where are the keys?’
‘Just wait over there, will you,’ Miss Parkes requested politely. ‘I’ll see if I can get them.’
The constable withdrew to the back doorstep and left Miss Parkes to tap on the door and whisper to the wretched inmate. After a few moments, the door opened a crack and a bunch of keys was thrust out. Miss Parkes took them, murmuring something that the constable did not catch, and then bore them to the back step.
‘Here we are. I think we’d better leave her alone. She’ll feel better when she’s thrown up everything in her stomach, poor old chook.’
The rest of the inhabitants were gathered in a palpitating group in the front hall. None of them liked to go back into the dining room, where a succession of gory drops now defiled the white linen tea-cloth. Constable Harris walked past them and up the stairs, unlocked the relevant door and tried to open it.
It would not budge.
‘What’s wrong?’ Miss Parkes called up and he shouted, ‘It’s bolted on the inside! Can I get in through a window?’
‘Only if you’ve got a long ladder. There’s no balcony on the back.’
‘Open up!’ yelled Constable Harris in a voice calculated to pierce an alcoholic fog. ‘Come on, you in there! This is the police!’ Dead silence was the only reply. Miss Minton whimpered and the magician put an arm around her. She leaned against him gratefully, only to recoil with a little shriek as something moved in his breast-pocket.
‘Sorry,’ he said, removing a dove with an automatic flourish. Miss Parkes bit her lip. This did not seem to be the moment to laugh. Sheridan’s dove fluttered up to perch on the lintel, something Mrs. Witherspoon would never have allowed had she been present. ‘There,’ said the magician, holding out his arms. Miss Minton replaced herself in his now dove-free embrace and Mr. Sheridan held her close, congratulating himself that his luck was holding, with all the women who did not matter, at least.
‘There, there, little girl,’ he soothed. ‘We’re all upset.’
Constable Harris appeared at the head of the stairs and called down to Miss Parkes, ‘Can you show me how to get onto the roof?’ Miss Parkes left Miss Minton to the wiles of the magician without a qualm and led the way up to the skylight.
‘Do be careful,’ she urged, as the young man stepped out onto the slate roof.
‘It’s not safe, you know. Mrs. W was always meaning to have it fixed.’
Constable Harris had the sun-kissed, blue-eyed, milk-fed country look which Miss Parkes had always found most attractive. He grinned at her, showing white teeth.
‘I’ll be all right, Miss. I’m fit, I do a lot of sport. Can you go down and look after the old lady? I’ll need her in shape to answer questions if there’s dirty work afoot.’
‘And do you think there is?’
Miss Parkes had a direct gaze and Constable Harris liked her, although he was still pestered by her resemblance to someone he had seen. A long while ago. In a paper, perhaps? He said soberly, ‘I reckon he’s done himself in, Miss. The door’s not only locked, it’s bolted on the inside. And I don’t reckon anyone tried the roof. You’d have heard.’
‘Yes. Just the same, Constable, I think I’d rather stay here, in case you need some help.’
‘All right, Miss.’
He grinned again and walked carefully down the steep leads to the gutter and along towards Mr. Christopher’s room. Lying down on the sun-warmed surface he leaned as far over as he dared. The window was uncurtained and the sun was bright. Moreover the light was on.
What he saw so surprised Constable Harris that he gave a loud yell, lost his grip and began to slither over the edge. He flailed wildly. Just in the nick of time, he was braked and suspended in space by a firm hand gripping the back of his tunic.
Miss Parkes had leapt the ledge and run down the roof with the lightness of a bird. As the constable hung over the edge, gasping, she threw all her weight back to balance him but she was not heavy or strong enough to drag him back.
‘Well, this is a pickle, isn’t it?’ she remarked in the same voice she would have used to a child who had come in dripping with mud. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Tommy.’ Harris tried not to look down to the flagstones of the yard, where Mrs. Witherspoon was even now emerging from the water-closet. They were hard stones, unyielding. He tried not to think of what he would look like after he had met them from this height. Head first. The grip which was holding him did not slacken and the voice was as smooth as milk.
‘Tommy, you will have to save yourself. I’m not strong enough to drag you up by main force. And if you struggle you’ll send us both over. Do you understand?’
‘Now, you will reach back with your right hand. Like that— yes, slowly, don’t make a sudden move. Don’t look down. Look straight ahead. Another six inches and you will do it. Good. That’s the gutter. Have you got a good grip?’
Tommy Harris had a grip on the gutter which would deform steel. The rim cut into his hand and he clutched tighter.
‘Good. Now, reach back with the other hand, slowly. I’m trying to support your whole weight, you know! You’re touching the gutter now. Have you got it?’
His left hand found the metal and clung with simian strength. ‘Good. Now I am going to let go and get back into the skylight.’ He made an inarticulate cry which might have been, ‘No,’ choked and called, ‘Don’t let go of me!’
‘I am going to let go and you are going to lie still and cling. Keep your arms straight and you can’t fall. I will get your feet and drag you inside.’ The voice was cool and held great authority. Some of her calm was creeping into his mind. He took a deep breath.
‘Good. You’re brave, Tommy my lad. I’ll count three, then all you have to do is hang on like fury and I can bring you safely inside. All right?’
He nodded. His mouth had dried to the consistency of coal. ‘One, two, three.’ Her grip relaxed, very carefully, and he heard her scramble back inside. For what seemed like endless ages he clung to the gutter. Then two hands closed on his ankles like pincers and he was dragged slowly and inexorably up the roof. ‘Let go now, Tommy. I’ve got half of you and I’m not going to let the rest fall,’ he heard her say and he struggled to believe in her enough to be able to let go. The drag on his knees and thighs grew stronger.
‘Let go, Tommy,’ she coaxed. He tried to unlatch his hands and couldn’t.
Above and behind him, he heard Miss Parkes sigh.
‘Let go at once!’ she yelled and hauled with all her force. Constable Harris was inside the window and collapsing into Miss Parkes’ arms before he knew what had happened.
‘There,’ she said, setting him on his feet and dusting down his tunic. ‘That was very brave. You don’t have any head for heights, do you?’
‘And you do.’ He gazed at her, open-mouthed and rumpled. ‘You’re…I know where I’ve seen you before!’
Miss Parkes stepped away from his touch as though she might contaminate him, her face blank with what looked like pain.
‘Yes, you must have seen me at the trial,’ she said sadly. ‘I thought that you were too young.’
‘When did they let you out, Miss Parkes?’ he asked, suddenly awkward and faltering. ‘I mean, yes, I remember the papers. They had a field day with the murder of your…’
‘My husband,’ she said in a remote, cold voice. The brown eyes which had looked on him almost with love, certainly with regard and compassion, were now as cold and hard as pebbles. ‘I was released from prison last year and I have been acting in some small roles. I am presently understudying Juliet’s nurse.’
‘But you were a trapeze artiste; the Flying Fantoccini, that was the name.’
Constable Harris, suddenly aware that he had hurt his rescuer deeply and unfairly, was dissolved in confusion. He took her hand, feeling the callouses, noticing now her light, easy stance and the strength of her arms.
‘I don’t care about that old case,’ he said, blushing pink. ‘Thank you, Miss Parkes. You saved my life.’
She returned the pressure of the hand slightly and then released herself. ‘What did you see through the window that sent you off the roof?’ she asked to change the subject. ‘Is Mr. Christopher there?’
‘He’s there,’ said Constable Harris, recalled to duty. ‘Oh, he’s there all right. Excuse me, Miss Parkes. I gotta call the station. There’s a nasty mess in there and it’s gotta be cleared away.’
# # #
Detective Inspector John—‘Call me Jack, everyone does’— Robinson arrived at the boarding house in Brunswick Street in a police vehicle which had seen better years, thus dead-heating the small and fussy police surgeon. Doctor Johnson had been called out from a golf game at the eleventh hole. He had been playing for the captain’s medal and exhibited the expected chagrin of a man who had been forced to abandon a two-stroke lead and a chance of being stood drinks by the club’s most notorious miser.
‘Well, what have you got for me?’ he snapped.
Jack Robinson shrugged. ‘I know as much about it as you do, Doctor. Sergeant Grossmith is in charge. Ah, here he is,’ said Robinson with relief, as the small doctor swelled with wrath. ‘Hello, Terry, what’s afoot?’
Sergeant Terence Grossmith was huge. His expanse of blue tunic was as wide as a tent. He had thinning brown hair and large, limpid brown eyes, which seemed to hold an expression of such placid benevolence that hardened criminals had occasionally found themselves confessing to him out of a sense of sheer incongruity. His local knowledge was legendary. He had been born and raised in Brunswick Street and he knew every respectable tradesman, greengrocer, tinsmith, landlady and thief; every small-time crim and shill and lady of light repute in the place; every corner, hidey-hole, sly-grog shop and repository for stolen goods in the length of that notorious street. He loved the place. He had never sought promotion, because it would take him away from it.
Robinson liked Grossmith. Usually he knew not only who had done the crime but where they lived and whose brother they were by the time the detective inspector arrived. Now, however, this paragon among sergeants seemed puzzled. He was rubbing a hamlike hand through his sparse hair and frowning.
‘Funny case, sir, and funny people,’ he said dubiously. ‘I don’t know what to think.’
‘But it’s murder?’
‘Oh, yes, sir, it’s murder all right. Sure as eggs. This way, Doctor. The boys will have had the door down by now.’
‘Why your benighted department can’t wait to call me out until they’ve got a real corpse I don’t know.’ The doctor’s voice sizzled with outrage. ‘If you can’t open the door how do you know there’s a murder? Have you dragged me away on a Sunday from a very good golf match because of something that someone saw through a keyhole?’
The sergeant looked down on the tubby doctor from his six- foot height and said calmly, ‘No, sir, my man looked through the window and perishingly near fell off the roof. The door’s bolted on the inside, but it’s murder all right. There’s blood leaking through the ceiling of the room below. And the constable said that the room is a mess. Ah,’ he added, as a crash and splinter from above offended the Sunday quiet. ‘There we are. This way, Doctor. Sir.’
Doctor Johnson stalked up the steps and into a hallway festooned with theatrical posters, then took the stairs beyond, following the large figure of Sergeant Grossmith. Robinson walked behind. As always at the start of a case, he felt downhearted and tired. There was so much evil in the world. ‘O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right,’ he quoted to himself. The Mechanics’ Institute English literature classes which his wife had taken him to, much against his will, had been very useful. A man could always rely on Shakespeare to hit the nail on the head. Robinson wondered how he had done without him.
He came into a clean corridor lined with coconut matting. The door of the third room on the left was broken and two panting constables were pulling the wreckage away. It had been a good stout door, Robinson observed as he paused at the threshold. Not this modern flimsy stuff, but the solid carpentry of last century, which held that a door was not a door unless it weighed half a ton and was wood all through. He observed the shattered remains of an iron bolt, which had resisted the efforts of two constables and a crowbar for ten minutes. Evidently the murdered man had valued his privacy.
The room was lofty, though small. It had been calcimined light blue, the ceiling a dingy shade of cream. There were water spots where the roof had leaked and stained the plaster, but otherwise the fabric seemed in good condition. The floor was uncarpeted except for a square in the middle. Blood had spurted onto the walls but most of it was pooled on the floor beside the bed, whence it had dripped down through the cracks to spill into Mrs. Witherspoon’s tea. Robinson hated the smell of blood. ‘Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?’ thought Robinson, with Shakespeare.
There was a wardrobe, a dressing-table laden with cosmetics, a chair with a gentleman’s dressing-gown laid over it, and a large trunk with chris/cross painted on it in gold and black. The walls were decorated with two small prints of English landscapes and an oil sketch of a beautiful girl riding a white horse.
Jack Robinson became aware that he was surveying the room so as to avoid looking at the body. He had never been able to cultivate a taste for corpses.
‘Hi!’ the police surgeon summoned him. ‘Come and look here, Robinson! This is supposed to be a man’s room, isn’t it? And the occupant a man? Well, I can tell you one thing. The person in this bed is certainly dead. Stabbed through the heart, I’d say. But this corpse isn’t a male.’
He peeled back a blood-soaked blanket and revealed the chest of the corpse. Under gentlemen’s pyjamas were small but perfectly formed breasts.