The Cold Grey Hour
Places, like people, have varying moods, and the moods of London are legion. Perhaps you know London best in a mood of restless toil and ceaseless purpose, or else in a spirit of nocturnal mirth and music. Perhaps your instinctive thought lingers in a dull and dreary street oppressed by the broodings of small happenings that never escape beyond front-doors; on the Embankment at dusk, with its gathering of human shadows; on the poverty of Mile End, the pathos of Regent Street, or the hard splendour of Park Lane’s new palaces.
But there is one London which you may never or rarely have met. It is the London of the cold grey hour, and you are wise to miss it, for in its period of transition it has nothing gracious to offer you. The tail-end of a tired blackness. The gradual, grudging intrusion of a light not yet conscious of its purpose. The chill of empty spaces. The loneliness of eternity. Yesterday’s newspaper slowly materialising on the pavement. Like a woman surprised before she has had a chance to shake off the night and beautify herself for the day, London gives no welcome to intruders at this hour. It pays them back heavily for having witnessed the ugly chaos of its re-creation.
Yet every day there are a few who, not from choice, flit silently through this ungracious hour, and nowhere is the hour more ungracious than at a railway station. If you really wish to test the depths of atmospheric depression, visit Plat- form No. 3 at Euston Station on an early autumn morning. The experience will try your faith, as it tried the faith of Richard Temperley when he alighted on that platform, 5 a.m., after a depressing all-night journey from the North.
It had been a peculiarly depressing journey. The earlier stages had not been enlivened by the murky Lancashire platforms through which they had glided. Shadows crept over the rowed-up milk-cans at Carnforth. Lancaster was reached in a moist gloaming; Preston, in drizzling night. At Preston, there had been a tedious change. Temperley had waited three hours for the Glasgow-London train—three hours at Preston Station on a damp Sunday evening!—and when the train had come in, it had been packed. It seemed to be suffering from a disease called People, the symptoms of which spotted the smoky, yellow-lit windows.
There had been one single minute of joy when, in the absence of a sleeper and damning the expense, Temperley had elevated his travelling status by transferring to a first-class compartment. It cost him seventeen shillings, but what was that? To stretch out fully from window to window, while elsewhere lolled the packed and perspiring humanity from which one had escaped—a sixpenny pillow behind one’s head, a shilling rug over one’s feet—yes, this was indeed sanctuary!
But then an elderly man had joined Temperley, occupying the other seat from window to window, and filling the newly-occupied space with grunts and snores. There had been a small dispute about fresh air. “That man and I are made of different chemicals,” reflected Temperley. “How pleasant it would be to murder him!”
The thought recurred to Temperley a few hours later. And so the train, with its unequal distribution of passengers, sped through the night, rattling, thudding, snoring. It was the elderly man who did the snoring. He snored incessantly. And here, at last, was Euston, that doubtful Mecca, reached at five o’clock; and people at their worst were dribbling out on to the ill-lit platform. Fortunately ill-lit, if one dwelt on personal vanity! But, at this cold grey hour, who did?
“Are we here?” grunted the elderly man, coming jerkily out of a snore.
It was an idiotic question. “How can we be anywhere else?” thought Temperley. But the criticism, at this unintelligent moment of the morning, was as idiotic as the cause of it; so, quelling his sarcastic impulse, Temperley paused in his scrappy toilet to assure his fellow-traveller that they were here, and then completed the refastening of his collar round his tired neck.
The elderly man was in an equally ungracious mood. He sat up suddenly, in a sort of tousled stupor, and gazed at Temperley as though the whole of creation were his fault. Then he bent down to find his boots, and, failing to find them, demanded where they were.
“I haven’t got them!” retorted Temperley, worn out. “No need to be rude, is there?” snapped the other. “Ah!
There’s one, under your seat!”
And, darting an indignant hand forward, he seized an unyielding hot-water-pipe. “Damn!” he roared.
Richard Temperley smiled maliciously. London at 5 a.m. had entered into his soul. They should both have been in bed and fast asleep.
Leaving his companion to his woes, Temperley stepped out on to the platform. Then he paused, wondering vaguely how a temporarily homeless man could fill in the awkward hours between five and eight in the morning. His bachelor flat at St. John’s Wood was let, and would not be free for another week. The interim was to be spent with a married sister at Richmond. Could he appear at Richmond before the servants were up and about?
A porter, accustomed to people in predicaments, intruded on his hesitation and suggested a stock remedy. “’Otel across the road, sir,” he said. “You can get a shake-down there.”
“Bit late to book a bedroom, isn’t it?” frowned Temperley. “Finish your sleep in the smoke-room, if you like,” answered the porter. “They keep a fire going.”
At first the idea seemed absurd. Walk into a hotel smoking-room at 5 a.m. and go to sleep in a leather arm-chair? Then the idea lost its absurdity, and became the logical answer to the problem. Why not? A couple of hours in a leather arm-chair before a fire that had purposely been kept up, then a bath at seven, and then breakfast at eight…
Someone went by, in the direction of the station exit. Went by with a rustle. Temperley raised his head. The faint light of a lamp glimmered momentarily upon a neat feminine back. The next instant, the back was gone. “Take your bag across, sir?” asked the porter.
Another figure went by. The elderly man. He had found his boots, and was using them. He seemed to be in a kind of fretful haste. The momentary peace evoked by the neat feminine back vanished irritably in the revived aura of those confounded boots and their confounded wearer!
The porter repeated his question. Temperley nodded. “Though why the devil,” he growled, as the porter possessed himself of his bag, “we’re not allowed to finish our night in the train beats me!”
The porter donned an expression of intense sympathy and understanding. It said, “Ah, if I were a Director, sir, things would be run on very different lines! More humane, like.” The expression would have been worth an extra threepence if there had been any light to see it by.
They trooped along the platform in the wake of the lady with the neat back, and of the elderly man. Now they had reached the engine. For a moment, the engine seemed to tower above them like a tamed metal mammoth, incongru- ously passive. Now they had passed beyond the engine and the boundary of the buffers, and began groping their way across the broader, untenanted spaces of the station. By a silent office. A sleeping tobacco kiosk. A dead bookstall, full of little ghosts.
Suddenly Temperley shuddered. Then he turned his eyes inwards, and stared at himself. “I say—what’s the matter with you?” he asked himself, accusingly.
Outside the station, it was pitch dark. This filled Temperley with fresh annoyance. He had expected some faint indication of cheer once the station had been shaken off, and he vaguely resented the lack of it. Surely the dawn might forget time-tables, and hurry a little for the sake of an all-night traveller!
“Jest across ’ere, sir,” came the porter’s voice. “You’ll be quite comfortable.”
“I hope you’re not an optimist,” answered Temperley.
The porter could not think of the right reply; so, with a wisdom all too rare, offered none.
A few seconds later the deserted road had been crossed, a dark square had been entered, the hotel door had been reached, and a sleepy night commissionaire was making it clear to the traveller that he was a perfectly acceptable proposition, if not a deliriously welcome one. The station porter had not lied about the smoking-room. “Lady gone in just before you,” said the commissionaire. “You’ll find a fire.” The luggage was stowed in the cloak-room. The porter was paid, and returned contentedly. “Along the passage, sir,” instructed the commissionaire.
As Temperley turned to go along the passage, he became suddenly conscious of a figure in a corner of the entrance hall. It was the figure of the elderly man. He was bending down, as though tying his bootlaces.
The passage proved rather a long one. It broadened and narrowed, and committed various irregularities, but it maintained its principal purpose of leading unerringly to the smoking-room at the end of it. The big door of the smoking-room stood wide. Light flickered from the interior of the room. Firelight.
Reaching the door, Richard Temperley paused. He wondered why he paused; and often, afterwards, he revived the wonder. Was it because the faint outline of the lady was silhouetted against the firelight across the room? It was a large room, and the lady did not appear to be conscious of his presence in the doorway. Was it because the big arm- chair near the window did not look quite so inviting as the arm-chair by the fire? Was it because a cock with too much imagination crowed somewhere beyond the window? The crowing came faintly. It would not have been heard at all if the window had not been open a crack…No! Not these! These were not the reasons!
“But there’s some reason” thought Temperley, unaccountably perplexed. “Otherwise I’d go straight to that chair by the window, and—”
Ah! Now he knew the reason! He had not received any check for his luggage! And suppose there was another commissionaire on duty when he left? Of course, that was it! Queer how minds worked! He would go back to the night commissionaire and raise the point. Then he would return, and take the chair by the window…
He turned, and began to retrace his way along the pas- sage. Footsteps came towards him, from the other end. He recognised them instinctively. Again, that fretful haste! The two men who had shared a first-class compartment from Preston passed each other in the dimness of the corridor. One went on to the smoking-room. The other returned to the entrance hall and spoke about his luggage.
The commissionaire seemed a little hurt. The luggage? That was safe enough! There was no need for any ticket. Of course, a receipt could be made out, if required…
“All right,” said Temperley. “I’m not worrying. Just wanted to make sure of the procedure, that’s all.”
He wondered why he had taken all this unnecessary trouble. His brain must be tired. Damn night journeys!
Oh, well, never mind. Here he was in the passage again, travelling its length for the third time, and soon he would be snoozing comfortably in an arm-chair. Which arm-chair? Not the one by the fire. The lady would be in that. The one by the window? The elderly man might be in that. In that case he’d have to find another somewhere. Now he came to think of it, he believed the room was bristling with arm- chairs! What a fuss over nothing!
Clang! The quarter-hour. A quarter-past five.
He neared the smoking-room door. As he did so, a figure appeared suddenly in the aperture. It was the lady. She was hurrying out. For an instant, as she passed him, they were within inches of each other. He caught a sense of fragrance, and also something far more interesting—a glimpse of her face. It was a beautiful face, and no less beautiful for the vague trouble in it.
Now she was gone, and Temperley was looking into the smoking-room again. This time the arm-chair by the window was occupied, and the arm-chair by the fire was empty. “Good!” thought Temperley. “I’m in luck!”
He tiptoed across to the arm-chair by the fire. He tiptoed quietly, with a ridiculous feeling that, if he made a noise, the elderly man in the arm-chair by the window would spring up and get to the better arm-chair first! The elderly man did not move, however. Already, he was asleep.
With a sigh of content, Temperley sank down in the comfortable leather. Yes, even though leather, it seemed comfortable. He was desperately tired. Why was he so tired? Why so oppressed? His health was generally proof against far more than he had been through during the past twelve hours. He had a queer sensation, however, that this night journey had been of a particularly nerve-racking kind, even though he could not discover any logical reason for the sensation. All he knew was that he wanted the light to come—wanted to get the occasion behind him—and then, when the new day dawned…
All at once he sat up. The room was pressing him down. He discovered that he was bathed in perspiration. “Why the devil isn’t that chap snoring?” He gasped.
But something whispered the answer as he asked the question. The elderly man in the arm-chair by the window was dead.
The First Murder
While life had reigned, the hotel smoking-room had been a dead place. Now death had come, it suddenly grew alive. Faces materialised out of the pale light, voices exclaimed or whispered, and figures flitted restlessly.
Temperley was never quite certain how this necessary agitation had accumulated so swiftly, or how it had grown from a shapeless thing to a functioning organisation. He supposed he must have cried out on making his gruesome discovery. Yes, when harping back afterwards, he remembered finding himself at the door, calling to the commissionaire, and then turning and pointing to the arm-chair by the window with its gruesome occupant. But the memory was distorted and hazy, for through it ran the confusion of a fatigued and violently startled man, and also a queer, quite separate agitation for which at first he could not account.
Then he realised that the agitation was due to the abrupt departure of the lady from the smoking-room, and to the ominous persistence of her absence. Why was not her face here, among the rest?
The night-commissionaire’s face—there it was, rising like a pale ghost above the little gleams of the official collar. A sleepy maid’s face, flushed with nightmare; a callow youth’s face, with a smear of boot-blacking on it; a tall man’s, wagging over a once-resplendent dressing-gown; a constable’s. These faces and others bobbed round the room, augmenting like mushrooms after rain. But the lady’s face was not among them, and Temperley would have given five pounds to have seen it there…
“Why am I worrying?” he wondered suddenly. “What the devil does she matter to me?”
And now to the facial gallery came two further additions. One was elderly and grave. The second was also elderly, but had a sharper quality.
“Stand away, there!” came the constable’s voice, quiet and important. During a short temporary lull before the arrival of the newcomers, the constable had stationed himself by the dead man as though to make sure that no one brought him to life again. Now he stepped aside, respectfully deferential towards those for whom he had cleared a path.
The newcomers reached the arm-chair, and stood for a few seconds regarding its limp contents. The second man transferred his gaze to the first man and raised his eyebrows. The first man, aware of the interrogation out of the corner of his eye, nodded.
“Dead,” he said, laconically.
“No doubt about it, doctor,” agreed the other, who had merely been awaiting the surgeon’s verdict as a matter of procedure. “Shot.”
Standing in the shadows, Temperley started slightly. Shot?
He had heard nothing…
“Bull through the heart,” replied the doctor, as he bent closer. “Well—it’s a quick way to go, inspector. Some I know wouldn’t mind.”
“All depends on whether you’re ready to go,” grunted the inspector, his gaze now roaming towards the window. “As he’s past helping, you won’t want to move him till he’s been photographed, will you?”
“That suits me,” answered the surgeon. “My job’s simple.” The brief examination of the one individual beyond all personal interest in it concluded, and the inspector turned away. He gave a few instructions. Then: “May I have a few words with the man who was with—who found him?” he asked. Temperley stepped forward. One’s mind is over-receptive and over-sensitive at poignant moments, and Temperley’s recorded three unrelated facts as he advanced. One was that a constable now stood guarding the smoking-room doorway. He seemed like a gate. Another was that the inspector- detective had an inch of white thread on his shoulder. The third was that the smear of blacking on the callow youth’s cheek had grown from the shape of a small black apple to a long grey banana; but whether this were due to the oppressive heat of the room or the working of an agitated finger on fleshy canvas, Temperley did not know.
“Ah,” said the inspector, subjecting him to a glance that merely appeared to be casual. “May I know your name, sir?”
“Richard Temperley,” answered Temperley.
“Thank you,” murmured the inspector, noting the fact on paper. “You are staying here?”
“Only for an hour or two,” replied Temperley. “I’ll explain that.”
“Yes, please do,” said the inspector. “And how about a couple of chairs? There’s no need for us to be uncomfortable.” He motioned to the constable inside the room, and a space was cleared where the conversation could proceed with some semblance of privacy. Temperley found himself back in the arm-chair by the fire, while the inspector shoved another opposite him, and sat down in it.
“How would you like me to do it, inspector?” inquired Temperley, who had been thinking hard during the interim. “In my own words, or will you help me with questions? This is the first murder I’ve ever been present at, so you must excuse me if I’m a bit green.”
“I can see you’re green,” responded the inspector, not unsympathetically, “or you’d be more careful of the words you use.”
“What have I said?”
“You said you were present at the murder.”
“Oh, I see.” Temperley paused. “Well, I’ll amend that, if I may. I don’t know whether I was present or not.” A sudden thought came to him. “No—I couldn’t have been!” he exclaimed, impulsively. “That shot—I never heard it.” He paused again. The inspector was watching him closely. “Unless—”
“Yes, Mr. Temperley. Unless?”
“Unless I was dozing,” concluded Temperley, rather lamely.
“And the shot woke you up?” “Yes.”
“The noise was not recorded, however, in your waking dream.”
“How do you know?”
“You’d have mentioned it, obviously.”
“So I would. No—I heard nothing—either waking or dreaming.”
“Do you deduce anything from that?” “What do you mean?”
As Temperley asked the question and found the inspector’s eyes boring into him with a sort of grave persistence, he began to realise the personality he was dealing with for the first time. This was no ordinary official. The inspector was a human being struggling through a queer and difficult world side by side with other human beings, and conscientiously carrying out his particular job. Relentless in his duty, perhaps, but sympathetic behind the relentlessness. So, at least, Temperley judged him at this moment; and, in the strange battle that was to ensue between them, he had many subsequent opportunities of testing this judgment.
Whether the judgment were right or wrong, the immediate result of it was to lighten a little the load on Temperley’s mind, and to render him more natural. But he did not like the theory towards which the inspector seemed to be working—the theory that the murder had been committed before Temperley had entered the smoking-room…and before the lady had left it…
“What I mean is this,” the inspector’s voice broke in on his thoughts. “Some guns bite without barking.”
“A silencer!” exclaimed Temperley, quickly. The inspector noted his relief.
“Yes, this shot was probably one of the silent kind. But before I advance my theories, let me know your facts, Mr. Temperley. You said you were staying here only a few hours?”
“Yes, I’ve just come off the night-train from Preston.” “Five a.m.?”
“Glasgow train, isn’t it?”
“I think so, but I only joined it at Preston.” “And—before that?”
“Windermere.” “On a holiday, eh?” “Yes.”
“I see. Well, and when your train arrived at Euston—” “Wait a minute, inspector. We must go back to Preston.” “Oh?”
“The dead man and I shared a first-class compartment from Preston.”
Fresh interest shot into the inspector’s eyes at this information. “You know him, then?” he demanded.
“Merely as a snoring travelling companion,” answered Temperley, and added, with a faint smile, “People who snore annoy me, inspector, but I don’t shoot them.”
If the inspector thought this funny, his face studiously avoided recording the fact. “Did anything that might bear upon this case occur on the journey?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Temperley assured him. “Or when you got to Euston?” “Nothing.”
“Who left the compartment first?” “I did.”
“Yes? And then?”
“He passed me while I was talking to a porter.” “Go on.”
“The porter suggested I should finish my sleep here, in this room.”
“Apparently, he—the dead man—had the same idea. He was in the hotel entrance when I arrived. I went to the room—this room—”
“Wait! Did he precede you?” “No.”
“He was tying up a boot-lace.” “Where?”
“In the entrance.”
“I see. So you entered the smoking-room first?” “Yes.”
“And found it empty?”
“Damn!” thought Temperley. “Now we’re coming to it!
But it’s ridiculous. A girl like that could never—”
“I know a lady was in the room before you,” came the inspector’s voice, “so you needn’t be gallant.”
“How do you know?” demanded Temperley, reddening slightly.
The inspector shrugged his shoulders, as though deprecat- ing the world’s lack of faith in his kind.
“You’re not the first person I’ve spoken to,” he said. “Where was this lady when you entered?”
“She was standing by the fire,” murmured Temperley. “By this chair I’m now sitting on.”
“In what sort of position?” “How do you mean?”
“At ease? Strained? Agitated?” “It was too dim to see.”
“But, surely? When you drew closer?” “I didn’t draw closer.”
“I went back to the hall.” “Why?”
Temperley hesitated. Then he blurted out,
“This may sound a bit silly but I’m telling you the truth—” “Nothing else is of any use to me.”
“Exactly. That’s why you’re getting it. I went back to make an inquiry about my luggage. The night-porter will corroborate this. Also, that it was a quite unnecessary inquiry. I haven’t any earthly idea why I asked it.”
“What was it?”
“Just to know if I needed a check for my luggage.” “That doesn’t seem so extraordinary.”
“Perhaps not. But, the impulse—just at that particular moment! You see, if I’d stayed—”
He paused. But not till later did he have any knowledge of what might have happened had he stayed. And, when the knowledge came, his forehead grew damp.
“Well—if you’d stayed, Mr. Temperley,” queried the inspector, after a pause.
“Perhaps I might have—prevented it!”
“How? The dead man was not in the smoking-room when you returned to the night-porter!” Temperley was silent. He felt he was saying too much. “Where was he?” pressed the inspector. “Still in the hotel entrance?”
“We passed each other in the passage.”
“Oh. Then he was in the smoking-room immediately after you left?” “Yes.”
“Where, also, was the lady?” “Yes.”
“What was his attitude when you passed each other in the passage?”
“Attitude? Oh—fretful—as it had always been.” “Nothing significant, then?”
“Did you speak to each other?” “No.”
“How long were you away? Talking to the night-porter?” “About a minute. Maybe, two.”
“Have you any idea of the time?” “Yes. It was a quarter-past five.” “How do you know that?”
“A clock struck the quarter just as I returned to the smoking-room.”
“I see. And, when you returned, you found only the man there? The lady had gone?”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t. It’s a guess. A good one?”
“Yes—she’d gone,” admitted Temperley. “Or, rather, she was going. She passed me as I went in.”
“Did she say anything to you?” “No.”
“Was she agitated? Well, you needn’t answer that. I can see by your expression that she was agitated. Forgive me for seeming personal, Mr. Temperley, but may I ask why you are so interested in this lady, if you do not know her? And that’s another question you needn’t answer unless you want to.”
Temperley frowned, but found it impossible to feel resentful. Why was he so interested? The inspector was merely echoing his own question.
“I’m—I’m dashed if I have any idea,” he replied, honestly. “Perhaps I just feel—that she couldn’t have had anything to do with this frightful business. And, by the way, inspector, she wasn’t very agitated—as far as I could judge.”
“But she was very beautiful!” murmured the inspector, without cynicism. Temperley flushed again, and the inspector smiled almost apologetically. “I understand, Mr. Temperley. There was a time when I, like you, rebelled against the idea of coupling crime with beauty. But—facts beat us, sir. We must keep our dreams for our private moments. Well. This—disturbing lady. She went out of the room and she did not come back?”
“And you have no idea where she is?”
“None at all.” That was something to be grateful for! “Where was the dead man. When you entered the room?” “Just where he is now.”
“And just as he is now?” “That I can’t say.” “What did you do?”
“I went to the arm-chair by the fire—this arm-chair—and sat in it.”
“The one she had stood by?” “Yes.”
“Did she sit in it?”
“What, when I was out of the room? How do I know?” “Of course. You couldn’t know. But, you know you sat in it. You dozed?” “I think so.”
“What made you wake up?”
“I’ve no idea. Yes, I have! I—I believe—” “Yes?”
“I believe it was a sudden realisation of the fact that the man wasn’t snoring.”
“I see. A shock of silence!”
“Something like that. You see, he’d snored solidly from Preston.”
“Now, answer this, Mr. Temperley. It’s very important. Was he snoring when you entered the room after the lady had left?”
“By Jove!” exclaimed Temperley, his heart leaping.
Yes, that was important! Because, if he had been snoring, then he must have been alive when the lady left.…He racked his memory. He tried to dispel the hateful impression of utter silence. He failed.
“I—I can’t remember,” he muttered. The inspector shook his head gravely.
“I think you would have remembered, Mr. Temperley, if he had snored,” he said.
“Well, even if he wasn’t snoring, he may not have been asleep,” Temperley parried.
“That’s true,” admitted the inspector. “But, subsequently, no snoring kept you awake?”
“There was no movement that you can recall?” “No.”
“In fact, the last time you can swear you saw him alive was when you passed him in the passage at about thirteen minutes past five?”
“Yes. That is so.”
As he spoke, the clock in the distance clanged six. The chimes came in through the half-open window, and all at once the inspector looked towards the window and rose. “Now what’s he up to?” wondered Temperley.
An instant later, another matter occupied his mind. His right hand, resting against the crevice between the arm and the seat of his chair, had come into contact with a small, soft object.
His heart started thumping. He darted a glance towards the inspector. The inspector had his back turned, and was poking his head out of the window. Surreptitiously, and trying unsuccessfully not to feel guilty, Temperley secured the small soft object and slipped it into his pocket. It was a lady’s bag. The inspector’s hand followed his head out of the window. For a moment he remained poised. Then the head and the hand were withdrawn.
“What do you make of this?” asked the inspector.
He held out a small piece of enamelled metal. Its colour was crimson, and it was in the shape of the letter Z.