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We live in a dangerous age, and this is not only because of the hydrogen bomb and high taxation.
Man has always been stalked by terror, such as medieval plagues, Mongol invasions, racial persecutions, or individual rapacity; and one might add, in passing, that to blame modern juvenile crime waves upon the uncertainty of the times is the finest piece of buck passing since Judas Iscariot's insignificant act of recognition drew limelight from the power politics of his era.
As in the past, so today, the ordinary citizen must keep his eyes skinned if he is not to go under, a victim either of the dangers he recognises daily, or of other dangers which come upon him suddenly, of which he can have little inkling until, bewildered and off guard, he is called upon to defend himself as best he can.
And a very poor best it can be on occasions.
The world is still a jungle, though the settlements are larger and the linking paths, though they vary, are mostly well made and seem deceptively safe.
By day and even by night, the peasant can normally go about his lawful avocations in safety. Yet now and again, as he struggles along the more difficult trails, he may catch a momentary glimpse of eyes in the undergrowth on either side, and hear soft movements and the snapping of twigs.
If he is an optimist, he will shrug his shoulders and take little notice, as I reacted at first.
But now I say this: the dangers change in some measure but the predators are still there, a little more subtle than in former times, though fundamentally not much — fundamentally, not much — and liable suddenly to be just as red in tooth and claw.
There is no need to take notice of these words.
Better, in some ways, to be an optimist. Better to hope for the best, as the ill-equipped peasant has been compelled to do through the ages, if life was not to become intolerable. And if, now and again, the peasant is clawed to the ground, what of it?
There are plenty more of us.
The first part of this story is simple, as such affairs go. I am a writer of crime stories, which means that the characters in my stories are mostly fictional, but occasionally the victim bears a resemblance to somebody I detest, and why not indeed? Every job has its perks. Notionally to kill one's current pet aversion is some recompense for the rest of the toil involved.
But I did not really know Lucy Dawson, and I certainly did not detest her.
Yet there she was, a victim served up, as it were, upon a plate, for although I did not know her to speak to, I had seen her several times.
She was a tall, thin woman in her seventies, with a high bridged nose, a gentle smile, and a soft cultured voice. I imagine that in England she mostly wore black, but in deference to the heat of September, south of Naples, she wore grey or pale blue dresses.
I think of her mostly in grey, sitting at a table by herself, dining by herself under the trees in the outdoor restaurant, where the hotel staff served meals during the hot season. Here an occasional lizard will run among the tables, and across the Bay the lights of Naples twinkle in the darkness.
I remember vaguely the glitter of diamond rings on her fingers, and, with more precision, a magnificent amethyst and diamond pendant which she wore on a gold chain about her neck. She wore it by day as well as in the evening, and I recall thinking that it was a bit much for daytime, and that she was doubtless reluctant to leave it in her room.
She rarely spoke to anybody, apart from exchanging the normal civilities in a courteous manner, though I know that at least two married couples, for reasons of social charity, had made conversational approaches.
She spent the four days during which we were both at the hotel either reading newspapers, which she had organised from England, or books, or going for walks along the sea road aided by a brown walking stick with a gold and ivory handle, though I heard later that she sometimes made longer excursions in a hired car.
I then left my hotel near Sorrento for a week, to visit Paestum, Cuma, and other Roman remains. I had some far-fetched idea of setting a murder at Cuma, in the dark underground cavern where Sybyl is supposed to have consulted her prophetic books, or in the sanctum of one of the Greek temples at Paestum, or in the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, or some such nonsense.
In my absence, the murder had been committed almost on my doorstep, or at any rate a comparatively few miles away in Pompeii.
I remember thinking that had I not known Pompeii so well from former visits, I might have been wandering around those magnificent ruins on the day she died.
When I returned to my Sorrento hotel, most of the excitement had died down. The police had been and gone. Her room, which for a period had been both sealed and locked, was now only locked, pending disposal of her belongings. The hotel guests and staff had ceased to mull over the tragedy in low voices. People swam and lay in the sun, and watched newcomers with pale skin rubbing themselves with anti-sunburn lotion. The beach umbrellas looked as gay as ever. The boat called each morning for day-trippers to Capri, and Vesuvius brooded mistily in the distance, seemingly content with the havoc he had wrought in A.D. 79.
Already, gentle, lonely Mrs. Dawson, photographed, docketed, and cleaned, was buried in the Protestant cemetery at Naples, and in the hotel it was almost as if this elegant old lady had never been there.
I had naturally read about the crime in the Italian newspapers and was puzzled as the Italian police were.
Her diamond rings and valuable amethyst pendant had not been stolen. About seven pounds' worth of Italian lire were untouched in her handbag. A sex assault was clearly out of the question.
She had been strangled with an Italian silk scarf behind the walls of House No. 27 in Section 12. She had several rather fine Italian scarves in delicate pastel shades of mingled browns and blues and yellows. I do not know which one was used to kill her.
There are a great many houses in Pompeii which are mere shells, roofless, the ruined walls of varying heights enclosing squares and rectangles of bare earth. I imagined the killer luring this old and frail woman into House No. 27, then leaning forward, perhaps with some pretext of adjusting her scarf, crossing his hands, while each held one side of the scarf, then quickly extending his hands so that the knuckles pressed suddenly into the carotid artery on each side of her neck. The suddenness and shock prevented an outcry. It is a soundless and happily painless method of causing unconsciousness in two or three seconds. Lengthier pressure causes death by continuing to cut off the supply of blood to the brain. Thus I imagined it happening.
If this method had been used, it indicated that Mrs. Dawson knew her murderer, for I could not imagine that dignified Victorian figure allowing a strange man to adjust her scarf, and for reasons of physical strength it would almost certainly have been a man.
But maybe it was a stranger, and maybe a clumsier method had been used. I hoped not.
I drove over to dusty Pompeii, not for ghoulish reasons, but because I write articles as well as books, and if at any time I wished to include this crime, it would be useful to have visited the spot and seen it with one's own eyes, and taken notes.
The visits of morbid sightseers had ceased, and I entered House No. 27 alone, though twenty yards up the street I saw a swarthy, stocky figure heave himself off a low wall and move in my direction. He was dressed in the simple uniform of the guards whose duty it is to prevent sightseers making off with such remaining Roman treasures as have not been housed in the local museum or removed to the Naples museum.
He was a rugged man of about fifty, a member of the Italian Communist Party, with whom I had had long conversations on previous occasions. Outwardly sour and embittered, inwardly, I suspect as soft as butter, he ascribed any and every misfortune he had ever suffered or would suffer to the iniquities of the capitalist system.
His name was Mario Bartelli. Mario Bartelli always conceded that Vesuvius had done a good job in that it had destroyed the capitalists in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other towns. But the whole thing had been too parochial. What was needed was another kind of eruption, which would destroy the whole rotten decadent system. For four days before the eruption, there had been earthquake rumblings, reminiscent of an earlier disaster, giving warning to the rich spivs, the clever dicks, the idle aristocracy who had time to think and organise, and what had happened? Why were no skeletons of horses found? Because all the horses had been commandeered by the rich.
On another occasion, entertaining in his way, as is every fanatic, he blamed his paucity of tips on victimisation by the Pompeii administration.
Guards in some sections with one or two special exhibits were sure of tips. The guard in the House of the Vetii, for example, was certain to win a daily quota for unlocking the cupboard which shielded his indecorous painting from eyes which might be shocked by it.
Mario had some Roman bread ovens and corn-grinding exhibits in his Section. You could see them from the pavement. No need to hand over lire to see bread ovens and corn-grinders.
It was the same when he had the Section which included the Amphitheatre. There were plenty of wine taverns in the Section, and plenty of graffiti on the walls. The Romans liked a drink on the way to and from the arena, and the drink emboldened them to scrawl slogans on the walls. But you could see the taverns and the graffiti for the price of the entrance ticket.
So there were no tips there either.
Guards were changed around, and so was he, but always to a tip-less section. It was clear to Mario Bartelli that he was the victim of anti-Communist discrimination.
For Mario, Pompeii represented meals of farinacious food and three rooms for himself and his family in a stuffy concrete building in Castellammare. And that was all Pompeii would ever mean to him.
I am in love with Pompeii, but Mario Bartelli hates the whole hot, arid dump. For him the problems of the present obliterate the past more effectively than Vesuvius has ever done.
As he approached and I went into the house where Mrs. Dawson had been killed, I could not help reflecting upon the unromantic conditions in which most murdered people are found: the deserted outhouse on a chicken farm, the crumpled sheets of the sickroom with the chipped crockery which contained the poison; the bramble bushes by the side of the muddy lane.
At Pompeii the surroundings were unique enough, but the uninteresting bare patch of parched earth and the sky into which the sightless eyes had gazed made it desolately similar to the scene of many another intolerable end.
I turned as Mario came in through the entrance of House No. 27 and for a moment I thought his soured and lined face showed some fleeting expression of pleasure, but I may have been mistaken. He crossed himself, Communist or not, in response to some deep-seated subconscious prompting, and I could tell from the glance of his eyes in which corner Mrs. Dawson's body had been found.
For it was Mario Bartelli who had found her, twenty-four hours after her death, and for once he was on guard in a Section in which tips, from journalists and tourists, flowed freely.
We had a long talk together, and from what he said, and from what I knew of his character, I was able to form what I believe to be an accurate picture of the events of that terrible morning of September 11th. This I will put on record, for even now after some considerable time, I am not certain what the future holds for me.
At ten o'clock on the morning of September 11th the sun was already very hot. Mario Bartelli was seated on a low ruined wall almost opposite No. 27, in the shade cast by an adjacent house. He extinguished a cheap State-manufactured cigarette and put the butt in a tin box for subsequent re-rolling with other cigarette ends.
He idly watched Aldo, the guide, go past with a small party of American tourists, and, I have no doubt, wished them all ill, including Aldo, who consistently refused to join the Communist Party of Italy.
A moment or two later, he saw Aldo and his party cross the street a few yards away, going over from one steeply built pavement to another, walking clumsily on the great stepping-stones which at intervals link the two sides. Aldo paused, as he always did at this spot, pointing out the deep ruts in the roadway caused by the wheels of Roman chariots. Aldo's voice droned on:
"It is often said, ladies and gentlemen, that Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius on August the twenty-fourth, in the year A.D. seventy-nine. You have now seen that this is not true. Thanks to the lava and volcanic dust, Pompeii and Herculaneum were, in fact, preserved by the eruption, so that here, as nowhere else in the world, we can see how those old-time Romans lived their lives."
I imagine that at this point Mario Bartelli spat, thinking that he, too, could be a guide and earn fat tips except that they wouldn't much like what he would say.
"Two thousand people, to our certain knowledge, and probably more in the surrounding countryside, died during that terrible eruption," droned Aldo. "Many were slaves looting the property of their owners."
Doubtless, Mario Bartelli stirred irritably thinking bitterly that the slaves were in fact only retrieving the wealth which had been filched from their class. It was military action at its best. He heard Aldo's voice rise as he reached his peroration.
"In a letter to Tacitus, ladies and gentlemen, Pliny the Younger, who was in nearby Misenum, said the world became quite black, not merely like a dark night, but like a room without windows. At one moment the sky was clear. Suddenly there was a loud and terrible crack, and gradually the sky darkened with stones and ashes. The sea receded, stranding maritime creatures. At first there was a horrible black cloud, rent by shafts of darting flames. Fleeing chariots, on seemingly flat ground, were rocked and flung about like toys, so that even heavy stones could not keep them steady. People screamed and called to each other in the gathering gloom. Apart from the looting slaves, there were others who stayed in Pompeii. The sick and infirm. Those who hoped it would quickly pass and remained in their homes.
"Those homes, ladies and gentlemen, were buried to a depth of many metres, and those people who were not crushed by falling walls and pillars were killed by the foul poisonous fumes which accompanied the ashes. And in the end there was no escape. Only death in the darkness which was like a room without windows."
This bit was always Aldo's great moment. I have myself heard his performance, and very fine it is, his voice rising and falling with simulated fervour. When he came to the last sentence he always spoke in a low tragic voice, hardly louder than a whisper, and followed it with a silence, as if in memory of those who had died.
It was at this point, and while he was weighing in his mind the words of Lenin, who said that in certain circumstances one could have a peaceful transition to Socialism, that Mario Bartelli saw the white butterfly, lost in the nectarless wastes of Pompeii, and a girl of about nine who had lagged behind Aldo's party, and was trying to catch the insect.
Like most Italians, Mario loved children.
He watched as the butterfly settled on a stone and the child cautiously approached, and he smiled when the butterfly escaped at the last moment.
He was delighted. Jumbled thoughts went through his mind. There had been the cruelties of a slave-owning community, the terror of the arena, the sulphurous darkness of the eruption, the centuries of silence and death; and now there was sunshine again, and the dainty white butterfly playing with this healthy, pink-faced little girl.
It restored your faith in the triumph of good over evil, he thought awkwardly, or told me he did.
He slowly walked towards the entrance to House No. 27, into which the child and butterfly had gone, hoping to see more of the chase, and staggered as the child hurtled out again and into his knees.
He bent to pick her up, saying, "What is it?" but she eluded him, and ran down the street, and fell once, as she crossed the stepping-stones to the other side where her parents were still listening to Aldo; and she picked herself up, and ran on, without bothering to brush the dust from her grazed knees, until she had flung herself into her mother's arms.
He saw Aldo and the tourists gather round the girl, and he himself became suddenly aware of a loud thrumming noise, and turning he saw a dense cloud of flies above the wall which divided the front and the back rooms of House No. 27. So he went behind the dividing wall, and then came back again to the street, and leaned over the low outer wall, and croaked for air. As the sickness passed he heard running footsteps, and Aldo the guide joined him.
Mario Bartelli said: "Don't go in! It is a matter for the police."
But Aldo shook him off and went in. When he came back Mario Bartelli said:
"Stand at the entrance here and don't let anybody in. I will run down to the Administration and report."
Aldo said: "I will go if you wish. Smoke a cigarette. I will go."
Mario shook his head. It was his duty to report personally all unusual incidents and irregularities in his Section.
He turned and hastened along the street, still feeling sick, half walking, half running, past the Forum, and down the street that sloped to the tunnel called the Porta Marina, and out of the twilight of the tunnel into the sunshine again, past the vendors of postcards and souvenirs, and so, perspiring, to the Administration building near the railway station.
During part of the way he thought about the child.
It was not good for a small girl to see a thing like that. It could give her nightmares.
Only a thin, ruined wall had divided innocence and fun from evil and death.
The dainty butterfly had led her in, and then flown heartlessly on. He hoped she would not have nightmares. He was afraid she would but he hoped she wouldn't. He told me that these were his thoughts, and they probably were.
He was a kindly man at heart, though he did his best to hide the fact.
After hearing of these things from Bartelli, I returned to my hotel, and after dinner when darkness had fallen, I watched the little boats creep round the coast of the Bay of Naples, as Lucy Dawson had done, the crews fishing with lantern and hand harpoon. From the inland villages, the fireworks of the harvest festivals echoed round the mountains like gunfire. I imagined how in Pompeii the night guards were languidly patrolling, meeting, chatting, and passing on. It is easier to break into a bank, these days, than to steal the remaining Roman treasures of Pompeii.
The moon doubtless shone on the Forum and on the rising tiers of seats in the Amphitheatre, and on the House of the Mysteries, and on the Street of Tombs, turning the colour of the bricks to a pale cream, and upon the piece of bare ground on which Lucy Dawson had lain, unrobbed, her jewellery glittering, while alarm at her failure to return spread through the other hotel guests.
I got up and strolled into the hotel and made my way to the bar and ordered a cognac. Bruno, the barman, was talking to the proprietor, Signor Bardoni, a short, thick-set man with a jutting chin, known secretly to the staff as the Duce, and less reverently to the visitors as Musso.
Bardoni greeted me politely, and so he should have done, considering the prices he charged.
"And did you have a good trip, Signor Compton?" he said in English.
I shrugged, and replied in Italian. I did not like Bardoni.
"So-so. I have a notebook full of notes. It was hot. I felt like a cross between an architect and an estate agent taking an inventory."
"It seems that you did not need to move very far for a murder story. You have heard, of course?"
I nodded and took a sip of brandy.
"When was she buried?"
"Two days ago. In the Protestant cemetery at Naples. A sad business. Not good for the tourist trade."
"I doubt if millions of British people will cease to visit Italy because one old lady was murdered."
"People are funny, Signor."
"Not as funny as that."
"We must hope not," he said, indifferently. The subject was petering out, and that suited me. But as an afterthought I said:
"Were there any Italian people at the funeral?"
"Only me, Signor, representing the hotel. She had often visited us. I took a wreath on behalf of the staff — and of the other guests, of course."
He had small, dark eyes, and the formation of the face around them was curiously hard, so that one had the impression that the sockets had been chopped out of wood.
I noted the chin jutting out more than usual, and the way his eyes looked straight into mine. People have grown accustomed to the cliché about shifty characters who cannot look you straight in the face, and so have the shifty characters; so much so that I have found that when a person now looks you straight in the eyes, as he speaks, it is often a damned good reason to think he is telling you a whopper.
I thought that Bardoni was probably lying now, and that he had not bothered to go.
"Any of the guests from the hotel go?"
"Signor, I did not tell them about it. Why should I? They come here for holidays, not funerals."
"Anybody from England fly out to Naples?"
He was in a bit of a spot now, of course, because, if he hadn't attended himself, he wouldn't know.
"The fare is expensive, and last minute tickets hard to get," he murmured tactfully with a sigh. He looked at his watch, muttered something about a telephone call, and left me. It was a neat evasion of the question. I guessed that as far as Bardoni was concerned Lucy Dawson had ceased to be a paying proposition, and was therefore of no account, from the moment when the scarf was tightened round her throat.
"I do not think Mrs. Dawson had any family left," I heard Bruno say.
He was a different type from Bardoni. He was a tall, soft-spoken young man, with copper-coloured hair and grey eyes, and a friendly desire to please everybody.
I nodded and finished my brandy.
"Poor old soul," I said.
"Poor old lady," agreed Bruno.
I was right about Bardoni not going to the funeral. But I was wrong about the reason. In a negative sort of way, Mrs. Dawson was a paying proposition for Bardoni from the moment she died.
The following morning I still had a fixation about old Mrs. Lucy Dawson being buried by bored Italian gravediggers, after a scraped-up service by the local chaplain, the funds advanced against her estate by the British Consulate, and not a soul to wish her farewell, and not a flower thrown on the grave. And all that sort of stuff. I can be sentimental to the point of sentimentality, given half a chance. Not that it usually lasts very long.
I swam in the clear sea during part of the morning, watched a little shoal of grey fish butting their noses inquisitively against my legs when I stood upright; and I lay in the sun and read; and had a couple of iced Cinzanos before lunch.
In the afternoon I had to go into Naples to verify some facts at the National Museum, and while I was in the little electric coastal train which swayed its way past Pompeii along to Napoli-Vesuvio Station I had another nasty attack of sentimentality, and knew what I would do when I had completed my business at the museum.
So in the late afternoon I bought a bunch of red and white carnations, hired a taxi, and drove to the cemetery. The cemetery keeper, with suitable words of dismay at the cause of her death, showed me her grave. I laid the carnations on the grave without a card, because in the circumstances I couldn't think of anything suitable to write.
There was one other wreath on the bare soil, a rather sumptuous affair made up mostly of gladioli, the flowers now sad and faded in the sun. I bent over to read the inscription on the card, sorry that I had done Bardoni an injustice, and found I hadn't.
The card simply said: From the Stepping Stones in memory of happier times. Some small type in the bottom left-hand corner read: Trans-Continental Flowers Ltd.
I had heard of some shaggy-looking singers called the Rolling Stones, but the Stepping Stones meant nothing to me.
Still, it meant that somebody, probably in England, had had the thought to wire some flowers for the funeral. It also meant that somebody, probably in England, knew when the burial was to take place, though the significance of this was not and could not be apparent to me at the time.
What with the carnations, the taxi, and a tip to the cemetery-keeper, the expedition had cost me rather over two pounds.
I sometimes think it was the worst spent money I have ever laid out.
Copyright © 1965 by John Bingham
Copyright renewed © 1993 by John Bingham