Miss Pongleton on the Stairs
Dozens of Hampstead people must have passed the door of the Frampton Private Hotel—as the boarding house where Miss Euphemia Pongleton lived was grandly called—on a certain Friday morning in March 1934, without noticing anything unusual. When they read their evening papers they must have cursed themselves for being so unobservant, but doubtless many of them made up for it by copious inventiveness and told their friends how they had sensed tragedy in the air or noticed an anxious look in Miss Pongleton’s eyes. Actually there was nothing to attract the attention of the casual passer-by in the usual morning exodus of the Frampton boarders. Young Mr. Grange and middle-aged Mr. Porter, both quite unremarkable, stepped briskly out at about half-past eight and took the road to Hampstead underground station. Shortly before nine Betty Watson, trim and alert, opened the door and stood there rather impatiently, gazing alternately at the sky and back into the hall of the Frampton. Punctually at nine Miss Euphemia Pongleton herself pottered fussily out, hugging an enormous handbag and looking perhaps rather shabbier and more out-of-date than usual. Betty informed her that it was a nice morning, in response to which Miss Pongleton wrinkled her nose as if she didn’t like the smell of it. At the end of Church Lane she turned to the right and doddered slowly down the hill towards Belsize Park underground station.
Before Miss Pongleton was out of sight Cissie Fain came bounding out, pulling on her gloves, and she and Betty fol- lowed Miss Pongleton almost at a run, but turned to the left, up the hill, at the end of Church Lane. Five minutes later Mr. Joseph Slocomb, swinging his neatly-rolled umbrella, sallied forth sedately.
Mr. Basil Pongleton’s departure from his lodgings in Tavistock Square, a little later on the same morning, was less sedate. He was obviously in a hurry; yet it was after ten o’clock when he passed almost directly beneath the Framp- ton, whizzed along through the tunnel in the direction of Golder’s Green. The underground train which he took from Warren Street at about 9.25 would have passed that spot nearly half an hour earlier, and his subterranean wanderings on that morning were to cause him a good deal of trouble. As he sat in the train he held before his eyes a copy of The Times which he had bought specially so that he might be able to make some suitable remarks to his aunt, Miss Euphemia Pongleton (quite forgetting that she disapproved of spending tuppence on a newspaper, even for the benefit of getting the standard point of view). But he was too agitated to understand anything that he read. His sight laid hold of the single sentence: The death penalty is a subject on which every citizen ought to form a reasoned opinion, free from senti- mental bias, and went over it again and again without being able to convey the sense of it to his mind. The bowler hat flung on the seat beside him seemed to have no connection with him; it was strangely out of keeping with his blue shirt and vaguely artistic appearance.
At the same time Mr. Crampit, a cheap dentist in Camden Town, was beginning to be a little put out by the lateness of his important patient, Miss Euphemia Pongleton, for her ten o’clock appointment. She usually came at least fifteen minutes before the time booked, in order to settle herself before the ordeal. Mr. Crampit was wondering if it would be safe to squeeze in old Mrs. Boddy, who was moaning with distress in his waiting-room.
Mr. Slocomb was, in accordance with the usual order of events, the first of the boarders to return to the Frampton that evening. He found the household in a very unusual state of agitation. In the “lounge hall”—where a couple of unused rickety wicker chairs attempted to justify the epithet “lounge”—he met the maid, Nellie, carrying a pile of plates.
“Oh, sir!” she gasped. “’V’you ’eard?”
He held up his evening paper gravely. “Yes; I have just read it in the Standard. A dreadful affair! That poor old lady!” “An’ my poor B-Bob!” spluttered Nellie, tears shining in her eyes. “’E’s bin took by those p’lice. ’E couldn’t ’ve done sich a thing, though the ol’ lady did say she’d tell on ’im.” “Now, now; what’s all this?” enquired Mr. Slocomb with paternal concern. “Do you mean to say your young man has been arrested for the murder of Miss Pongleton on the underground stairs?”
He had followed the girl into the dining-room on the right of the hall, where she set down the plates and extracted a handkerchief from the region of her knees in order to blow her nose defiantly.
“They took ’im this arternoon; ’is sister Louie come an’ tell me ’bout it. Seems the ol’ lady ’ad that brooch on ’er with ’is name on a paper, an’ ’e bein’ down in that toob station a-course it looks black for ’im; an’ ’e may be weak, but brutal ’e never was, an’ I know ’e couldn’t’ve done any such thing, not if ’e wanted to which ’e wouldn’t.”
Nellie gave way to convulsive sobbing punctuated by loud sniffs.
“Now look here, my girl,” said Mr. Slocomb kindly, patting her shoulder. “If your young man is innocent he’ll be all right. British justice is deservedly respected all the world over.”
“But the p’lice, they’re something chronic; they’ll worm anything out of you,” blubbered Nellie.
“Don’t get any wrong ideas about our excellent police force into your head,” Mr. Slocomb admonished her. “They are the friends of the innocent. Of course this is very unfor- tunate for your young man, but surely—”
“There ‘e is, my poor Bob, in a nasty cell! Oh, sir, d’you think they’ll let me see ’im?”
“Well, really—” began Mr. Slocomb; but the conversation was interrupted by a strident call.
“Nellie! Nellie! What are you about? Pull yourself together, girl! We have to dine even if…”
Mrs. Bliss, the proprietress of the Frampton, flowingly clothed in black satin, paused in the doorway. “Dear me, Mr. Slocomb; you must be wondering what’s come to me, shouting all over the house like this! But really, my poor nerves are so jangled I hardly know where I am! To think of dear Miss Pongleton, always so particular, poor soul, lying there on the stairs—dear, dear, dear!”
Nellie had slipped past Mrs. Bliss and scuttled back to the kitchen. Mr. Slocomb noticed that Mrs. Bliss’s black satin was unrelieved by the usual loops of gold chain and pearls, and concluded that this restraint was in token of respect to the deceased.
“Yes, indeed, Mrs. Bliss, you must be distraught. Indeed a terrible affair! And this poor girl is in great distress about young Bob Thurlow, but I would advise you to keep her mind on her work, Mrs. Bliss; work is a wonderful balm for harassed nerves. A dreadful business! I only know, of course, the sparse details which I have just read in the evening Press.” “You’ve heard nothing more, Mr. Slocomb? Nellie’s Bob is a good-for-nothing, we all know”—Mrs. Bliss’s tone held sinister meaning—“but I’m sure none of us thought him capable of this!”
“We must not think him so now, Mrs. Bliss, until—and unless—we are reluctantly compelled to do so,” Mr. Slocomb told her in his most pompous manner.
“And Bob was always so good to poor Miss Pongleton’s Tuppy. The little creature is very restless; mark my words, he’s beginning to pine! Now I wonder, Mr. Slocomb, what I ought to do with him? What would you advise? Perhaps poor Miss Pongleton’s nephew, young Mr. Basil, would take him—though in lodgings, of course, I hardly know. There’s many a landlady would think a dog nothing but a nuisance, and little return for it, but of course what I have done for the poor dear lady I did gladly—”
“Indeed, Mrs. Bliss, we have always counted you as one of Tuppy’s best friends. And as you say, Bob Thurlow was good to him, too; he took him for walks, I believe?”
“He always seemed so fond of the poor little fellow; who could believe…Well! well! And they say dogs know! What was that saying Mr. Blend was so fond of at one time—before your day, I daresay it would be: True humanity shows itself first in kindness to dumb animals. Out of one of his scrap- books. Well, the truest sayings sometimes go astray! But I must see after that girl; and cook’s not much better, she’s so flustered she’s making Nellie ten times worse. She can’t keep her tongue still a moment!”
Mrs. Bliss bustled away, and Mr. Slocomb, apparently rather exasperated by her chatter, made his escape as soon as she had removed herself from the doorway.
As Mrs. Bliss returned to the kitchen she thought: “Well, I’m glad he’s here; that’s some comfort; always so helpful— but goodness knows what the dinner will be like!”