The alarm clock at Mr. Henderson’s left ear gave a slight warning twitch and then went off with all its customary punctuality and power. It had not cost a great deal of money (to be exact, three shillings and elevenpence), but for all that it had a good bullying ring which could be calculated to waken most of Mrs. Bertram’s lodgers. Not, however, Mr. Henderson. In the flat below, Mrs. Twist heard the sound of the alarm and dispatched her several offsprings to their several schools. Even nearer the bowels of the earth, in the very bottom flat, Mr. Jackson started at the sound, bolted his second egg and his third cup of tea, snatched his umbrella and bowler hat from their places on the hallstand, kissed a good-bye to his wife, and departed at a steady trot in the direction of the 8.25 to town. But the alarm had very little effect on the person nearest to it. It rang uninterrupted for nearly a minute, and then a hand appeared slowly from beneath the bedclothes, stretched itself out in the direction of the clock, waggled for a second or two until it found the alarm-pointer, and disappeared again beneath the sheets. A strange stillness settled once more on Number 34, Ardgowan Mansions, N. And Jim Henderson turned over on his other side and went to sleep.
His landlady, Mrs. Bertram, knew her business. Jim had given her strict orders on the early-morning procedure. At eight-fifteen, alarms but no excursions. At nine, breakfast. In the sitting-room if the sensational happened and Jim rallied to the alarm’s ringing. In bed if he didn’t. During his three years’ stay at Mrs. Bertram’s “establishment” (which was the official description given to the place whenever Mrs. Bertram put a two-line advertisement in the evening papers), Jim had had breakfast thrice in the sitting-room. Once out of sheer necessity in order to catch a train. Twice when the three-and-elevenpenny alarm clock had made unfortunate blots on its otherwise excellent record. On all other mornings, breakfast was brought to him in bed. It was brought there this morning.
Mrs. Bertram brought it herself. A large and benevolent soul, this Mrs. Bertram; a woman who talked a great deal more than was necessary and who read the newspapers rather more than was good for her. Mrs. Bertram thrived on news. Each morning, before she began her round of duties in the house, she consumed the more important portions of three of the morning dailies. And then to each of her four lodgers she passed on those portions, amended and exaggerated as she thought fit, as a kind of free gift with their breakfast trays. On Christmas Day and Easter Monday and other paperless occasions Mrs. Bertram pined in agony from the lack of news. Breakfast served neat, without a spot of morning scandal, seemed a futile affair altogether.
She laid Jim’s tray down on the table beside his bed, crossed to the window and pulled back the curtains. The sunlight had more effect on Mr. Henderson than the alarm clock, for he sat up in bed, propped himself on one elbow, and blinked first at his breakfast and then at Mrs. Bertram.
“’Morning, Mr. Henderson,” said Mrs. Bertram. “Lovely morning. Sun and everything. Regular summer’s day, it is.”
Mr. Henderson grunted.
“There’s your breakfast, dearie. Kippers again, I’m afraid. Price of eggs is something shocking. It’s this here government with their tariffs and their duties and their whatnots.”
Mr. Henderson thought for a moment of asking for further particulars of a government’s whatnots. Instead of doing which he grunted again.
“And there’s the morning paper for you. Nothing much in it. Some sort of a how-d’you-do in Borneo, and a typist in Manchester got strangled coming home from a dance. That conference has bust up without doing nothing, as usual. And Lady Carter—her that was the actress—has had another baby. Five, that is. And that horse you gave me for the three o’clock yesterday was last by a quarter of a furlong.”
Mr. Henderson (give the man his due) roused himself at this last piece of news. He said: “That’s a pity, Mrs. Bertram.”
“It’s more than a pity, Mr. Henderson. Thank heaven I don’t know how long a furlong is—that’s some consolation.”
“Any letters, Mrs. Bertram?”
“Three. On top of your kippers, dearie.”
And Mrs. Bertram steered her large frame across the room and closed the door behind her. She scuttled back to the armchair at the side of the kitchen fireplace, found her spectacles, and continued the Daily Standard’s unnecessarily full details (with photograph on back page and cross marking the spot) of the Manchester strangle. She had not had time to digest the thing fully before the bells started ringing for their shaving-water. Done in with a length of picture cord, she was, poor girl. And such a nice-looking girl, too. Really nowadays you never could tell.
In his bedroom Jim Henderson poured out coffee and began an attack on his kippers in a depressed silence. Usually at this time of the day he indulged in a fit of the blues. He reviewed the situation as he had done a hundred times before. Out of work. Been so for three years. And with every possibility of remaining so for the rest of his days. He had left school to join in the war, during which his mother had died. Had returned from the war with each limb intact but with neither business training nor experience. And since then things had not stopped going wrong. Letters, crisp and type-written (“we regret very much that we are unable to accept your application for this post, but we have been forced to fill the vacancy with a rather more experienced man”) became as frequent as rejection slips to the budding author. He got a job, and very promptly lost it through telling the managing director, with a commendable but very rash frankness, exactly what he thought of him. And after that jobs were even harder to get. “So,” said Jim Henderson, picking the last vestiges of edible matter from his second kipper, “so here we are. Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job.” He told himself that the subject of the sentence was much too far away from the verb to make the thing at all pleasant to the ear, and then proceeded to open his morning’s mail.
Mrs. Bertram had been perfectly right when she said that there were three letters. She might, of course, have added that two of the three bore only halfpenny stamps, thus considerably reducing their interest. But the third was a real, live, honest affair with the full three-halfpenceworth of stampage in its top right-hand corner. Jim inspected it thoroughly. Felt it. Smelt it. Decided that he didn’t know the handwriting, and that he had never heard of the postmark. And then laid it down beside the remains of his kippers. Best to keep a thing like that to the last; much more satisfactory to deal with the riff-raff first. He dealt with the riff-raff. In the very remote chance of being able to get odds against one of the two half-penny letters being a bill, Jim would have made money. A bill it certainly was. From Messrs. Smith, Hopkinson and Trevor, Ltd. “To account rendered, one lounge suit, £8 8s. od.” Jim swore, under his breath at first and then audibly. The other was an appeal from the old boys’ association of the public school at which he had learned the finer points of rugby football. Mr. James Lockhart, M.A., was resigning his post of Senior Science Master at the end of the summer term, and it was felt that all old boys should be given the opportunity of subscribing to some small token of their appreciation of Mr. Lockhart’s long and valued services. Jim swore, audibly at first and then under his breath, and remembered the classic occasion when he had lathered the seat of old Lockjaw’s desk with soft soap. He passed on to the third letter.
He read it slowly, took a sip of his coffee, and read it again. He laid it down for a moment beside his coffee-cup and lay back to contemplate his bedroom ceiling. The ceiling was in need of dusting and whitewashing, and the soot from the gas-jet had made a dark circle in one corner. But for once Jim did not notice these things. He poured himself out a further supply of coffee while reading the letter for the third time, and sent most of the coffee into his saucer and very little into the cup. The amazing thing was that the letter read exactly the same each time. He read:
nr. Adderly, Surrey.
Dear Captain Henderson,
I am not quite sure whether you will know me. I was a very close friend of your father and lived with him in South Africa for many years before he died. I met you once or twice in England when you were very young. I have recently returned to England from abroad and have taken this house in Surrey for a while. I wonder if you would care to come down next weekend and join in a little unofficial house-warming?
I can promise you excellent fishing and fair shooting, and the company will be nearer your age than mine, so you need not worry on that account. There is an extremely bad train which leaves St. Pancras at 3.20, getting to Adderly at a quarter-past four. May I expect you down next Friday? I can send the car to meet you at Adderly station, if you will let me know when you are coming. I hope that I may have the pleasure of seeing you again.
Yours very sincerely,
“Well,” said Jim. “Never heard of the fellow in my life.” He pushed the bedclothes back, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and stretched himself. Then he crossed to his dressing-table and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He mentioned casually to the reflection that it would have been much better if he had been very fair instead of very dark, passed his hand over the offending scrubbiness of his chin, and said “What about it?”
“What about what?” said the reflection.
“This Thrackley business, of course.”
“Oh, that,” said the reflection. “Accept it, you fool. You’ll probably be bored stiff, but it’s a free weekend with free food and free drink. You might even be able to get twelve-and-six knocked off Mother Bertram’s monthly bill for board, lodgings, and services. So why not?”
“Very well,” said Jim Henderson. “Very well, Mr. Carson, whoever you are, we shall be pleased to accept your kind invitation for Friday next. Now where in the name of heaven is my shaving water?”
An annual subscription to Graham’s was one of the few luxuries which Jim Henderson permitted himself. It was, he felt, money well spent. Most people know Graham’s. You enter it from the Strand, and its interior makes up for all that the exterior lacks. At Graham’s you may obtain a cocktail which is really much the same as the best cocktail in any of the other London clubs, but which has just an extra something which makes it far superior and leaves the others lagging miserably behind. At Graham’s, too, you can get a very fine omelette aux champignons, so light and airy that you have to be ready to bolt it the very minute it arrives on its heated pewter dish; if you are not, the wretched thing falls flat like a burst balloon and sags despondently all over your plate. At Graham’s—well, in any case, Graham’s is certainly worth its fifteen guineas a year membership fee. No matter how hard it is for you to scrape together the said fifteen.
When Jim entered the club shortly after eleven that morning he found the usual before-lunch crowd in their usual places in the lounge. Derek Simpson astride an armchair, his long legs swinging over the leather arms, his group of satellites listening to Derek Simpson’s opinions of Derek Simpson’s acting in the new thing at the Alhambra. John Fletcher and old Angus and some of the more elderly members in their corner, drinking Bacardis and bemoaning the new level to which rubber had fallen. Someone whom Jim remembered as having played for Oxford at something (squash, he imagined) relating, with a wealth of detail, his experiences of a recent Channel crossing. A large gentleman in plus fours practising chip shots on the lounge carpet, with the screwed-up front page of The Times as a ball and an empty beer tankard as the hole. And in the cocktail bar through the swing doors the Honourable Freddie Usher was laughing.
No other person in the world laughed quite like Freddie Usher. Mercifully so. Large and oily film-directors, ever ready to jar their talking-picture audiences with a new and devastating noise, offered the most amazing terms for the inclusion of half-a-minute of Freddie Usher’s laugh in their latest productions. There were no half-hearted methods adopted when Freddie Usher became amused. No discreetness. No lack of abandon. No thought for the ear-drums of those in the next street but two. No… Freddie Usher threw back his chest, opened his mouth to a distressing width, slapped his thighs and all thighs within reach, and announced his amusement to the world.
Jim pushed open the heavy swing doors which led from the lounge to the bar. He stood at the doors for a moment, realizing that conversation was out of the question until the Honourable Freddie had recovered from his mirth.
“’Morning, everybody,” he said at last. “’Morning, Freddie.”
“James!” said Freddie, cutting short the last diminuendoes of the cackle. “Dear old James! What is it?”
“Gin-and-ginger, please, Freddie.”
“So be it. Make it two, Edward. Double ones.”
“What on earth were you making that fiendish din about?”
The Honourable Freddie looked puzzled.
“Din?” he asked. “Din? Did I hear you correctly? Was I making a din?”
“You certainly were.”
“Really. Well, I forget why. Some little thing someone said about something, I suppose.”
He handed Jim his drink and pulled two chairs close to each other in a corner of the bar.
“Just a minute,” said Jim. “I want a word with you, Freddie. Let’s go into the lounge where it’s quieter.”
“As you say, James.”
They left the crowd in the bar and entered the comparative peace of the lounge. Jim looked round. In one of the window corners two chairs stood invitingly empty. There was no one within a dozen yards with the exception of Sir Reginald Forrest, M.P. And the prospects of being disturbed by Sir Reginald seemed rather remote, for that eminent financial expert was in a very undignified and almost horizontal position, The Times over the upper quarter of his face, his mouth open and sagging, his arms clasped contentedly over that portion of his being where presumably his breakfast lay.
“Over there,” said Jim.
“Righto. But why this air of mystery? Why this come- hither-where-no-alien-ear-may-lurk attitude?”
“Stop prattling, Freddie. And park yourself in that chair.”
They sat down, drew their chairs together and took a sip of their drinks.
“Well?” said the Honourable Freddie.
“This morning I had a letter.”
“Just fancy that. A letter. Well, well, well. Most remarkable. So far as I can remember, I had eleven. Three from charitable institutions, one account rendered for a pair of singularly snappy silk pyjamas which I’ve never quite had the face to wear, one kind offer from a Mr. Andrew Isaacs with absolutely no security, a picture-postcard from my Aunt Florence, who—funnily enough—is in Florence, and—”
“For heaven’s sake shut up.”
“My celebrated imitation of a deaf and dumb oyster sent to Coventry,” said the Honourable Freddie, and subsided into his gin-and-ginger.
“A letter from someone I’ve never seen or heard of before. The question is, can I get into your dress trousers?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Will I fit your evening clothes? You’re lending them to me, you see. For next weekend. I can’t possibly go and stay at a very superior country house in a navy blue serge suit that’s slightly shiny at all the obvious places. They’re bound to dress for dinner and observe all these quaint medieval customs. He’s even threatened fishing.”
“Sorry, old man. It’s impossible.”
“Impossible. Quite imposs.”
“Remember we were at school together.”
“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”
“And I promise to take terribly good care of them, and not to spill the Mulligatawny down your white waistcoat.”
“I tell you, Jim, I can’t lend you the damned things. I’m using them myself.”
“I, too, have received the call to the wide open spaces next weekend. Down to a house-party in Surrey.”
“Surrey. Don’t dither your lower lip at me like that, Jim. You’ve heard of Surrey before, surely? Percy Fender used to captain it at cricket.”
“Freddie, are you invited to a place called Thrackley by a bloke called Carson?”
“How the blazes did you know?”
“Intuition, my boy. Sheer intuition. That’s the place where I was going to parade in your tails.”
“You’ve been asked down to Thrackley? Jim, this is splendid. Here have I been looking forward to the most ghastly weekend, with long walks and tapioca pudding and redoubling four spades and going three light, and possibly slipping away on the milk train in the grey dawn of Sunday morning. But if you’re coming down there’s a chance that it may not be quite so mouldy.”
“Thanks very much. But what about the dress suit? We’d be apt to look odd if you wore trousers and I contented myself with the jacket.”
“True. Jim, this is a time when personal sacrifices must be made. You shall have Number Two suit. It’s all right—a bit moth-ballish, perhaps, but quite good enough for the wilds of Surrey.”
“Thanks very much.”
Jim called to the passing waiter and muttered something concerning the same again, please.
“The thing I’m trying to get at,” he said, “is who the devil is Edwin Carson? Never heard of the fellow in my life.”
The Honourable Freddie thought for several seconds before answering.
“Edwin Carson,” he said at last, “is a rum bird. A bird, Jim, of extreme rumness. The pater used to know him well, but I’ve only met him once or twice. He’s been abroad for years, I believe. India, someone told me. Probably spending weekends with the ruling princes and picking neat little holes in their crowns.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Edwin Carson is the greatest living authority on precious stones in the world. The only reason why he isn’t acclaimed as such in public and in the Press is that his methods of collecting his jewels—he’s got an amazing collection, I believe—is not supposed to be all that it might be. Comrade Carson is a person with a past. He was out in South Africa years ago—”
“I wonder if that was where he met my father? Dad died out there, you know, when I was just a kid. He said in his letter that he was an old friend of Father.”
“Maybe. In any case, he collected a pretty fat fortune for himself out there, and since those days he’s lived half in England and half abroad.”
“And what’s the idea in asking us down? Ordinary hospitality?”
“When you meet friend Carson, you’ll realize that he’s not at all the sort of fellow who might be expected to ooze with good old English hospitality. No… the object in asking me down is the Usher diamonds.”
Jim stopped his second gin-and-ginger half-way on its journey to his mouth, stared at Freddie, and said “Uck?”
“The Usher diamonds. Carson wants me to bring the damned things down. Wants to compare them with some in his own collection.”
“You’re not going to?”
“If I can get them out of pawn and give them a wash and brush up in time. Why not?”
“Of all the blithering, nit-witted—”
“Don’t you worry. I can take care of them all right. Besides, old Carson’s a reformed character now. A bit potty, one hears, but otherwise quite harmless.”
“And why d’you think he wants me to join the party?”
“I’ve been trying to think that out. You haven’t a collar-stud or anything like that that’s a priceless heirloom?”
“I wish to heaven I had.”
“Then he’s probably trying to get his daughter married. Obviously the man hasn’t heard of your murky past.”
“There’s a daughter, then?”
“There certainly is. And if my informants are correct, the said daughter is just about the gem of the entire collection.”
The two men rose and crossed the lounge to the cloak-room to collect their gloves and hats.
“By the way,” said the Honourable Freddie, “I suppose you still happen to have a revolver lying about the house somewhere?”
“Yes. I’m packing one beside my razor blades and toothbrush next weekend. Just for fun, of course.”
“I’m taking a revolver to Thrackley. You never know with blokes like Carson. A bit potty, but otherwise quite harmless. And I hate these harmless, potty people. They’re always up to something.”
“Why not take those new pyjamas you were talking about? A much more deadly weapon.”
“These broad attempts at humour do not come naturally from you, James. And that looks to me remarkably like a taxi. Taxi!”
They had stopped on the steps of the club, before being lost in the traffic of the Strand.
“I’ll run you down on Friday, Jim,” said the Honourable Freddie. “Fishing, you said, didn’t you?”
“Excellent fishing,” said Jim. “And fair shooting.”
“Only fair? What a pity!”
And Mr. Usher disappeared head first into his taxi.