The 12.30 from Croydon

The 12.30 from Croydon

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ...

About The Author

Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879–1957)was one of the pre-eminent writers in the golden age of British crime fiction. He was the ...

Read an Excerpt

 

Chapter I

Andrew Takes the Air

Rose Morley was an excited young lady as with her father and grandfather and grandfather’s servant she reached the air station at Victoria. For the first time in her life she was going to fly!

Excitements indeed had followed one another without intermission since last night, when the dreadful news had come that her mother had been knocked down and seriously injured by a taxi in Paris. Rose was staying with a school friend at Thirsk, in Yorkshire. She had gone to bed and almost to sleep, and then Mrs Blessington had come in softly and told her to get up and dress, as her father had come to pay her a late visit. Wonderingly, Rose had obeyed. She had gone down to the drawing-room to find her father there alone. He had smiled at her bravely, but she had seen in a moment that he was really terribly upset. He had explained at once what had happened. That was one thing she did like about daddy: he always treated her as a grown-up and told her the truth about things. Poor mummy had had this accident in Paris and he and grandfather were going over to see her. And wouldn’t she, Rose, like to go with them and see poor mummy, too?

Rose said she would. At first she had been dreadfully distressed at the thought that her mother might be in pain, but then so many thrilling things had happened one after another that these regrets had become dulled. First there had been the run home in the car through the darkness, sitting beside daddy, who drove. Then the getting up again at half- past two in the morning—she had never before been up at such an hour; the coffee and sandwiches in the dining-room, and the long drive in the car to York. She was sleepy in the station, which was horrid, so big and empty and cold. But the train had soon come in and she had had such a delightful little room with a real bed to sleep in. Then daddy had wakened her to say that it was time to get up, and she had found that they were in London. As soon as she had dressed they had gone to an hotel for breakfast. There grandfather had rested till after a while they had had this thrilling drive across Town, and now here was the air station: and she was going to fly!

Now that the crowning excitement of the journey had been reached, all thoughts as to what might lie at its farther end vanished from her mind and she became intent solely on the present. Small wonder! Her outlook was not that of her father and grandfather. She was only ten.

Her father, Peter Morley, was a man of about forty, of medium height, thin, stooped, and a trifle dyspeptic. His face was set in a melancholy cast, as if he had little faith in the good intentions of the goddess of chance. His passion was farming, and when he had married Elsie Crowther they had bought the little estate which for many years he had coveted. Otterton Farm was near Cold Pickerby, where his father-in-law, Andrew Crowther, lived. It had a small but charming old homestead building, an excellent yard and out offices, and just over a hundred acres of good land. Peter’s management was sound and he made a success of the venture: until the slump had come. Now he found himself in the same difficulties as his co-agriculturists. He had a son and daughter: Hugh, a boy of thirteen, who was also away on a visit, and this girl, Rose.

Andrew Crowther, the father of Peter’s wife, Elsie, was a retired manufacturer and a wealthy man. The first impression that he produced on the observer was that of age. He was an old man; old for his years, which were only sixty-five. His hair was snow-white and his face seamed and haggard. For some time he had given up shaving, and now he wore a thin straggling beard and moustache. Always to Peter he suggested Henry Irving as Shylock, with his hooked nose, stooped shoulders and grasping, claw-like fingers. He could somehow be imagined crouching over a fire and holding out his thin hands to the blaze. Up to some five years earlier he had been a personable and well-set-up man, but he had then had a serious illness which had sapped his vitality and all but taken his life. He had pulled through, but he emerged from his sick-room the wreck of his former self. Peter had doubted the wisdom of his undertaking this journey, but Elsie was Andrew Crowther’s only daughter, the only living being indeed of whom he seemed really fond, and he had insisted on coming. His heart was known to be weak, and Peter had rung up his doctor and had him specially examined as to his fitness for the expedition. Of this Dr Gregory had expressed no doubt. All the same Peter watched him anxiously, though to his satisfaction the old man did not so far show signs of fatigue.

The fourth member of the quartet was John Weatherup, Andrew Crowther’s general attendant and butler. He was a thin man of middle height, with a dark saturnine face and a manner expressive of gloom. He had come to Andrew during the latter’s convalescence with excellent qualifications as a male nurse, and when Andrew was as well as he was ever likely to become and no longer required a nurse, Weatherup had taken no notice of the fact, but had stayed on as ‘man’. As an attendant, he was not the person Peter would have chosen, but he appeared to be a success at his job, and could effectively humour his employer.

Peter Morley was eagerly anticipating their arrival at the air station. He had arranged that a telegram with the latest bulletin of his wife’s condition should be sent him there, and his anxiety grew almost painful as they drove across Town. Indeed he could scarcely contain himself till the taxi came to rest, leaping out and hurrying to the office.

As he disappeared two porters in neat blue uniforms came forward.

‘Have you got reserved places?’ one asked.

Weatherup explained that these had been obtained on the previous evening. Thereupon the porters seized the luggage, and to Rose’s intense interest, threw it lightly into a hole in the office wall. She could see the suit-cases departing slowly and mysteriously downwards into the bowels of the earth on a series of metal rollers which stretched away like some unusual kind of flat stairway. But before she could point out the phenomenon to her grandfather, Peter reappeared, waving a buff slip.

‘It’s not so bad as we thought,’ he cried as he came for- ward. ‘Look at this! Better this morning. Injuries believed superficial. Thank God for that! Great news, Mr Crowther! Splendid, isn’t it, Rose?’ He was so excited that he could scarcely pay the taximan. ‘Great news, great news!’ he continued repeating as they crossed the footpath to the office. ‘We’ll see her in four hours! And she might have been killed!’ The others in their diverse ways expressed their relief and they entered the office. It was a large room, modern as to design and comfortable as to furniture: an office-waiting- room. Along one side was a counter behind which smart young men functioned. Elsewhere were settees on which would-be passengers had disposed themselves. Andrew Crowther joined the latter, while Peter and Rose went up to the counter.

‘Your tickets, please?’

‘You have them,’ Peter explained. ‘I rang up for places last night. Mr Peter Morley.’

The tickets were found to be in order, and then passports were demanded and handed over. ‘You’ll get them back at Croydon,’ explained the smart young man. Then he pointed. ‘Will you stand on the scales—with your handbags, please.’ They were duly weighed in. Rose wanted to know their weights, but as set forth in the Company’s advertisement, a veil is drawn over this intimate matter and the figures repose in the brain of the clerk alone. They were, however, handed a map and booklet of information about the flight. Presently there came the cry: ‘All for Paris, please!’ and with varying degrees of eagerness or indifference everyone began to drift towards the door. Outside the Croydon bus was waiting, they all got in, and it moved slowly off.

The morning had been fine when they left York, but the sky had soon become overcast and now a dismal rain was falling. Though Rose remained immensely excited, her enthusiasm became somewhat damped by the miles of wet streets through which they passed and the drab and dingy buildings which edged them. An uninspiring drive, though as they got nearer Croydon things improved. Here it was not raining, though it was cloudy and threatening to commence at any moment.

At last the aerodrome! Behind the buildings fronting the road Rose could see sheds, a tall square tower, a green field and a glimpse of planes. They swung in through a narrow gate and pulled up at the porch of a large building. Everyone got out. The passengers sorted themselves into groups and passed in through the porch to a large hall. There the passports were returned and they were shepherded by officials to a second door leading out on to the drome.

Now the great moment had come! Here in front of them was the aeroplane. Rose had eyes for nothing else as in a thin stream the passengers emerged on to the concrete on which the great machine was standing, some thirty or forty yards from the building. How huge it looked! Unwieldy too, thought Rose, gazing at the criss-cross struts connecting its wings and its long, slightly curved body. Not in the least like a bird, but still like something she had seen. What was it? She remembered: it was a dragonfly. It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and each with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST. Hengist and Horsa; she had heard of them, though she wasn’t quite certain who they were.

But there was really no time to look at the strange machine. Halfway between the wings and the tail a door was open in its side, with a flight of steps leading up to it, and before Rose knew where she was, she was climbing up after her father. A step through the doorway and she was in the cabin.

It was just like the bus in which she had so often gone to school, with four seats across it and a narrow corridor down the centre. Her seat was next to the side immediately in front of the door, with her father next to her. Beside her was a window, but she couldn’t see out because the door opened back across it. She therefore looked round the cabin instead.

Her grandfather was just taking his place right in front of her with Weatherup in the seat next to him. There were eighteen seats in the compartment, and in a few seconds every one of them was filled. And Rose knew that a lot more people had got in through another door to the forward cabin in front of the wings. It was to it, she supposed, that that door in the front partition led.

Everyone was settling down, putting handbags on the racks above the windows and getting out papers and magazines. No one seemed to think it at all strange that they were going to fly. How could they, she wondered? However, she supposed they had all done it before.

The door was now shut behind her and she suddenly found that the obstruction was gone from the window and that she could see out. The principal object in the landscape was the lower wing. It seemed simply huge from so close. From it the great criss-crosses went up to the upper wing, which she could see only by bending down and gazing up. Others of these criss-crosses went down to the landing-wheel which had a pneumatic tyre a good deal bigger than her whole body.

At each side of the wheel were large wooden wedges, and now a man came forward and pulled these away. Then an officer in a smart blue uniform made a signal to someone on board. At once the motors began to hum more loudly, and the propeller, which had been flickering, now became a round blur. Suddenly she saw that the ground was moving. They were off!

There was a stain of mud on the great landing-wheel, and fascinated, Rose watched it going round and round. The plane turned to the right, and the air buildings and the small crowd of onlookers swung round backwards and slipped out of sight. Soon they were off the concrete and on to the grass of the field. The machine ran very easily: Rose could feel the motion like that of a car, but there were no bumps. Out in the middle of the drome they slowed down and the plane was turned, to meet the wind, her father explained. Then suddenly the motors roared out loudly. There was a feeling as if an enormous hand had grasped the machine and was pulling it forward. The speed increased so quickly that Rose felt pressed immovably back into her seat. More fascinated than ever she watched the mud stain on the great wheel, going round faster and faster and always faster.

They were now racing across the field with the speed of an express train, the wheel turning so quickly that Rose could scarcely see the mud stain. She watched it breathlessly, her hands clasped with excitement. Then suddenly the wonder happened.

Without feeling anything unusual she saw there was a little space, a few inches, below the great wheel! The space increased. It became a foot, a yard, several yards. They were flying!

‘Oh!’ gasped Rose, delighted and yet just the least little bit afraid.

‘Now we’re off,’ said Peter somewhat unnecessarily, but she scarcely heard him. She was too busy looking down on Croydon. As far as she could see, they were not rising: the ground instead was sinking quickly down from them in some quite inexplicable way. Two or three hundred yards below them Croydon seemed a far prettier place than it had looked on the way from Town. There were hills and hollows and the roads wound about in curves, and there was any amount of green between the houses. From the bus she had only seen streets and shops.

Suddenly her heart shot into her mouth and she gripped the back of the seat in front of her in momentary terror. ‘Hengist’ gave a horrid drop, as the stern of a great ship will slip off a receding wave. It was like a lift of which the rope had broken. Immediately he brought up, as if landing at the bottom of the shaft. Then for a while he was unsteady, swooping up and down quicker than the quickest lift Rose had ever been in. He didn’t pitch or roll, but rose and fell on an even keel. Rose hated it. However, it didn’t last long, and soon he settled down steadily again.

Now a fluffy strip of vapour floated past the window, and almost at once they were in fog. Rose could still see the great wing and its wheel, but the ground was gone. Except for the wing and wheel there was nothing anywhere but pearly grey mist.

‘Fog, daddy,’ she said, disappointed that she could no longer see below.

‘It’s cloud, darling,’ Peter Morley answered. ‘We’ve gone right up into the clouds! What do you think of that?’ He leaned forward. ‘How are you getting on, Mr Crowther? The motion’s not unpleasant?’

‘I’m enjoying it,’ the old man returned. ‘It’s the first time I’ve ever travelled by air and I’m enjoying it. We might as well be in the car.’

‘Yes, it’s pretty steady now and not too noisy. A wonderful improvement on the early machines, when you had to get cotton-wool in your ears, and even then were half deafened.’ ‘They said it would be no noisier than a train, and neither is it.’

Rose guessed from her grandfather’s manner that in his quiet way he was just as much excited by the experience as she was. It was not really noisy, she thought; still, there was that tremendous drone of the motors going on so steadily all the time. But after a while she supposed one would get so used to that as scarcely to hear it.

‘See those little dials?’ her father pointed.

There were three, side by side, like three clocks, set into the wall in front, beside the door leading to the other cabin. One indeed was a clock; the others she couldn’t read.

‘Those tell us our height and our speed,’ Peter went on. ‘You see, we are three thousand two hundred feet high and going at one hundred and twenty miles an hour: twice as quick as an express train. You see that, Mr Crowther?’ and he went on to repeat his information.

Rose thought it all very thrilling, but she wished they were out of the cloud. She had wanted to see the sea, and it didn’t look as if she were going to. However, long before she began to feel bored, a new diversion occurred. The attendant came round to know if they were taking lunch.

They all took it. Tiny flaps on the backs of the chairs in front were let down to make tables, and little rings, which came out like the chalk dishes of a billiard table, held their glasses. They had a four-course lunch followed by coffee, all very nice and comfortably served. Rose enjoyed every minute of it, particularly as she could still see nothing from the window but the wing with its attendant hanging wheel and the pearly grey fog.

Lunch was still in progress when she noticed a difference in the appearance of the fog. She couldn’t understand it, but her father explained. They had come out of the cloud and were flying through clear air. Still they could see neither earth nor sun. Layers of cloud stretched both above and below them. Gradually they rose above the lower layer and as they did so its appearance became more and more impressive. It looked solid, like a rolling, hillocky plain, but the hillocks had soft edges like frayed cotton-wool. It stretched away as far as they could see into the distance, its valleys showing dark between its lighter crests. Above them, however, the cloud looked flat and unbroken, like the sky of a wet day on the earth.

Presently it grew lighter ahead and they saw that they were approaching the edge of the upper cloud. From a definite line on the lower cloud the sun was shining. They flew out into the sun. Above, the sky was now blue; below, the hillocks of the vast plain were more intensely white and the valleys between them correspondingly darker.

‘Where are we now?’ Peter Morley asked the attendant, who came to change the plates.

‘Over the Channel, sir.’

Rose was a little disappointed. She had missed that aerial view of England to which she had been looking forward ever since she had heard they were to fly. However, she had seen the clouds from above, and that was something.

Presently she noticed that a large area of the cloud below had darkened in colour. For a moment she gazed at it with a rather listless attention. Then, realizing what it was, she was suddenly thrilled.

‘Daddy, look, look!’ she cried excitedly. ‘Look at the land!’ She was right. There, three thousand two hundred feet below them, was the surface of France. Peter leant forward to see, old Mr Crowther was evidently fascinated, and even the sombre Weatherup showed a grudging interest.

It was indeed a fascinating map upon which they gazed. The land was divided up into little irregular squares like tiny crooked postage stamps in various shades of greens and browns and reds. Feathery green areas obviously represented woods. In all directions ran traces, a perfect network of lines, representing roads and lanes and water-courses. A few were straight or evenly curved, evidently main roads or railways. A darkish worm headed by a tiny white streamer made certain of the nature of one dark line. The houses showed as tiny rectangles and the villages reminded them of the relievo models so often made to illustrate dead cities. Tiny yellow circles, looking about as big as the heads of matches, at first puzzled Rose. Then she saw that they must be haystacks. Some fields had a still more mysterious appearance. They were covered with a pattern of little dots, arranged in lines as if for ornament, like tiny beads sewn on an old-fashioned mitten.

‘What are they, daddy?’ she asked, pointing them out.

Peter Morley was not sure, but suggested cartloads of fertilizer, laid down in the fields but not yet spread.

The most striking thing in the landscape was, however, the shadows. Every object had its shadow stretching away north. The shadow alone showed that objects had height. Every building, every hedge, every embankment had its shadow. Thin clumps of trees, feathery and indeterminate, stood out clearly because of their shadows.

Looking backwards from the other side of the car they were able to get a glimpse of the sea, showing up as a flat plain of dark, slaty blue.

‘That,’ said Peter Morley, who had been studying his map, ‘is the estuary of the Somme. And that,’ he returned to Rose’s window and pointed, ‘that straight dark line is the Nord Railway from Calais and Boulogne to Paris. The town over there is Abbeville.’

Rose gazed down. It was all very thrilling and wonderful. So that queer-looking country was France! To think that all those funny little spaces between the houses were really streets, and that people were in them, too small to be seen! It was like looking on an ant heap from the top of a high building. ‘What’s that white ring, daddy?’ she asked presently, as a circle containing letters showed in the middle of a field far below.

‘Poix,’ Peter answered, again studying his map. ‘It’s an aerodrome, and you could see its name in the circle if we were lower. That’s how the pilots know where to come down.’

Rose was still meditating over this when she noticed that little wisps of cloud were forming far below. Small and widely separated at first they quickly grew larger and closer together, allowing mere glimpses of the land. Soon even these gaps disappeared and once again they were looking down on a world of rolling cloud. What a pity, she thought, when the view of the country had been so wonderful.

She was interested to notice that her grandfather had gone to sleep. He was leaning back in the corner of his seat with his head against the wall of the car. Asleep! she thought amazedly. Fancy anyone going to sleep in the middle of all this excitement! But old people were like that. They got tired easily. Her father noticed it at the same time.

‘Having a nap, is he?’ he said to Weatherup.

‘Yes, sir. He generally goes off for a few minutes after lunch, so I suppose it’s force of habit.’

‘It won’t do him any harm.’

‘No, sir. This is a good deal for a man of his years and health.’

Just then the attendant came round.

‘We’re landing at Beauvais,’ he told everyone. He did not explain why, but the whisper went round that there was fog in Paris.

Almost immediately Rose felt the plane falling, gently, like an easy lift. The motors still kept on droning as before, but the cloud layer was coming up rapidly. There was nothing unpleasant in the motion, it was so easy and gradual. Presently the motors slackened speed till Rose could see the quivering of the propeller blades. Then they dropped into the cloud and were once more surrounded by opaque whiteness, through which only the wing and wheel were visible.

They fell on and on through the cloud, the motors going on and off more than once. Suddenly they saw the ground. They were close to it now, not more, Peter estimated, than three or four hundred feet up. Once again the motors roared out and they continued flying across the fields at this height.

Expecting as they were to come down to earth at any moment, the flight now seemed endless. But at last Rose could see their objective, a large field with another white ring, this time very big indeed, and containing the word BEAUVAIS in huge letters. Still they kept up, passing nearly over the aerodrome. Now the plane seemed to want to land and made some disconcerting swoops and dives. Then it banked. The wing took up an angle of forty-five degrees with the ground, and they swung slowly round in a great circle. Suddenly they dropped, easily. The ground rushed up to meet them. They were within fifty feet of it, forty, thirty, ten.

The ground had been slipping past pretty quickly, but only now could Rose see their real speed. It seemed tremendous. The ground absolutely dashed past. It was faster than any train she had ever been in.

As they slipped over the edge of the aerodrome they seemed not more than four or five feet up, and almost at once the great wheel touched and began to revolve as it had at Croydon, so quickly that Rose could scarcely see its patch of mud. They were down; down without the slightest shock or sensation of landing! Indeed it was less steady as they taxied across the grass, gradually reducing speed. Then quite slowly they moved up to the aerodrome buildings and—the flight was over!

‘Well, Rose, how did you like that?’ her father queried as he got up and began fumbling for his handbag and coat.

‘Oh, daddy, it was lovely!’ she cried. ‘Lovely! I want to go back this way.’

‘I hope we shall,’ he answered. ‘Will you take your coat?’

She stood up and took the coat, looking at the passengers all doing the same thing. Her grandfather was still asleep and Weatherup bent over him. Then he straightened up and spoke hurriedly to her father.

‘What?’ Peter answered very sharply, glancing at the old man. Immediately he turned to Rose and said quickly: ‘Now, Rose, out with you! Look sharp now; you mustn’t keep everyone waiting.’

Rose was amazed. This wasn’t the way her father usually spoke, and besides she wasn’t keeping anyone waiting. But his face bore an unusual expression, and when she saw it she thought it better not to argue, but to get out at once. He helped her down.

‘Wait there for me,’ he went on. ‘I shan’t be long’, and he climbed quickly back into the plane.

But he was: a long time. All the other passengers had come out and walked off before he reappeared. Then his face was very grave.

‘I’m sorry to say your grandfather has been taken ill,’ he said. ‘We shall have to carry him out of the plane. Will you come over to the office and wait for us there.’

It was not till later that Rose learned that Andrew Crowther had been dead when the plane came to the ground.

Reviews of

The 12.30 from Croydon

“An old-fashioned but steadily absorbing account of a decent man’s descent into corruption and murder. One of Crofts’ best.”

Kirkus Reviews

“The degree of suspense Crofts achieves by showing the growing obsession and planning is worthy of Hitchcock. Another first-rate reissue from the British Library Crime Classics series.”

Booklist (starred review)

“They will find themselves eagerly anticipating his next devious move.”

Publishers Weekly

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads