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THE SMILE THAT WINS
The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest had turned to the subject of the regrettably low standard of morality prevalent among the nobility and landed gentry of Great Britain.
Miss Postlethwaite, our erudite barmaid, had brought the matter up by mentioning that in the novelette which she was reading a viscount had just thrown a family solicitor over a cliff.
'Because he had found out his guilty secret,' explained Miss Postlethwaite, polishing a glass a little severely, for she was a good woman. 'It was his guilty secret this solicitor had found out, so the viscount threw him over a cliff. I suppose, if one did but know, that sort of thing is going on all the time.'
Mr Mulliner nodded gravely.
'So much so,' he agreed, 'that I believe that whenever a family solicitor is found in two or more pieces at the bottom of a cliff, the first thing the Big Four at Scotland Yard do is make a roundup of all the viscounts in the neighbourhood.'
'Baronets are worse than viscounts,' said a Pint of Stout vehemently. 'I was done down by one only last month over the sale of a cow.'
'Earls are worse than baronets,' insisted a Whisky Sour. 'I could tell you something about earls.'
'How about O.B.E.s?' demanded a Mild and Bitter. 'If you ask me, O.B.E.s want watching, too.'
Mr Mulliner sighed.
'The fact is,' he said, 'reluctant though one may be to admit it, the entire British aristocracy is seamed and honeycombed with immorality. I venture to assert that, if you took a pin and jabbed it down anywhere in the pages of Debrett's Peerage, you would find it piercing the name of someone who was going about the place with a conscience as tender as a sunburned neck. If anything were needed to prove my assertion, the story of my nephew, Adrian Mulliner, the detective, would do it.'
'I didn't know you had a nephew who was a detective,' said the Whisky Sour.
Oh, yes. He has retired now, but at one time he was as keen an operator as anyone in the profession (said Mr Mulliner). After leaving Oxford and trying his hand at one or two uncongenial tasks, he had found his niche as a member of the firm of Widgery and Boon, Investigators, of Albemarle Street. And it was during his second year with this old-established house that he met and loved Lady Millicent Shipton-Bellinger, younger daughter of the fifth Earl of Brangbolton.
It was the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham that brought the young couple together. From the purely professional standpoint, my nephew has never ranked this among his greatest triumphs of ratiocination; but, considering what it led to, he might well, I think, be justified in regarding it as the most important case of his career. What happened was that he met the animal straying in the park, deduced from the name and address on its collar that it belonged to Lady Millicent Shipton-Bellinger, of 18a, Upper Brook Street, and took it thither at the conclusion of his stroll and restored it.
'Child's-play' is the phrase with which, if you happen to allude to it, Adrian Mulliner will always airily dismiss this particular investigation; but Lady Millicent could not have displayed more admiration and enthusiasm had it been the supremest masterpiece of detective work. She fawned on my nephew. She invited him in to tea, consisting of buttered toast, anchovy sandwiches and two kinds of cake; and at the conclusion of the meal they parted on terms which, even at that early stage in their acquaintance, were something warmer than those of mere friendship.
Indeed, it is my belief that the girl fell in love with Adrian as instantaneously as he with her. On him, it was her radiant blonde beauty that exercised the spell. She, on her side, was fascinated, I fancy, not only by the regularity of his features, which, as is the case with all the Mulliners, was considerable, but also by the fact that he was dark and thin and wore an air of inscrutable melancholy.
This, as a matter of fact, was due to the troublesome attacks of dyspepsia from which he had suffered since boyhood; but to the girl it naturally seemed evidence of a great and romantic soul. Nobody, she felt, could look so grave and sad, had he not hidden deeps in him.
One can see the thing from her point of view. All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.
At any rate, their love ripened rapidly. It could not have been two weeks after their first meeting when Adrian, as he was giving her lunch one day at the Senior Bloodstain, the detectives' club in Rupert Street, proposed and was accepted. And for the next twenty-four hours, one is safe in saying, there was in the whole of London, including the outlying suburban districts, no happier private investigator than he.
Next day, however, when he again met Millicent for lunch, he was disturbed to perceive on her beautiful face an emotion which his trained eye immediately recognized as anguish.
'Oh, Adrian,' said the girl brokenly. 'The worst has happened. My father refuses to hear of our marrying. When I told him we were engaged, he said "Pooh!" quite a number of times, and added that he had never heard such dashed nonsense in his life. You see, ever since my Uncle Joe's trouble in nineteen-twenty-eight, father has had a horror of detectives.'
'I don't think I have met your Uncle Joe.'
'You will have the opportunity next year. With the usual allowance for good conduct he should be with us again about July. And there is another thing.'
'Yes. Do you know Sir Jasper Addleton, O.B.E.?'
'Father wants me to marry him. Isn't it awful!'
'I have certainly heard more enjoyable bits of news,' agreed Adrian. 'This wants a good deal of careful thinking over.'
The process of thinking over his unfortunate situation had the effect of rendering excessively acute the pangs of Adrian Mulliner's dyspepsia. During the past two weeks the ecstasy of being with Millicent and deducing that she loved him had caused a complete cessation of the attacks; but now they began again, worse than ever. At length, after a sleepless night during which he experienced all the emotions of one who has carelessly swallowed a family of scorpions, he sought a specialist.
The specialist was one of those keen, modern minds who disdain the outworn formulæ of the more conservative mass of the medical profession. He examined Adrian carefully, then sat back in his chair, with the tips of his fingers touching.
'Smile!' he said.
'Eh?' said Adrian.
'Smile, Mr Mulliner.'
'Did you say smile?'
'That's it. Smile.'
'But,' Adrian pointed out, 'I've just lost the only girl I ever loved.'
'Well, that's fine,' said the specialist, who was a bachelor. 'Come on, now, if you please. Start smiling.'
Adrian was a little bewildered. 'Listen,' he said. 'What is all this about smiling? We started, if I recollect, talking about my gastric juices. Now, in some mysterious way, we seem to have got on to the subject of smiles. How do you mean -- smile? I never smile. I haven't smiled since the butler tripped over the spaniel and upset the melted butter on my Aunt Elizabeth, when I was a boy of twelve.'
The specialist nodded.
'Precisely. And that is why your digestive organs trouble you. Dyspepsia,' he proceeded, 'is now recognized by the progressive element of the profession as purely mental. We do not treat it with drugs and medicines. Happiness is the only cure. Be gay, Mr Mulliner. Be cheerful. And, if you can't do that, at any rate smile. The mere exercise of the risible muscles is in itself beneficial. Go out now and make a point, whenever you have a spare moment, of smiling.'
'Like this?' said Adrian.
'Wider than that.'
'How about this?'
'Better,' said the specialist, 'but still not quite so elastic as one could desire. Naturally, you need practice. We must expect the muscles to work rustily for a while at their unaccustomed task. No doubt things will brighten by and by.'
He regarded Adrian thoughtfully.
'Odd,' he said. 'A curious smile, yours, Mr Mulliner. It reminds me a little of the Mona Lisa's. It has the same underlying note of the sardonic and the sinister. It virtually amounts to a leer. Somehow it seems to convey the suggestion that you know all. Fortunately, my own life is an open book, for all to read, and so I was not discommoded. But I think it would be better if, for the present, you endeavoured not to smile at invalids or nervous persons. Good morning, Mr Mulliner. That will be five guineas, precisely.'
On Adrian's face, as he went off that afternoon to perform the duties assigned to him by his firm, there was no smile of any description. He shrank from the ordeal before him. He had been told off to guard the wedding-presents at a reception in Grosvenor Square, and naturally anything to do with weddings was like a sword through his heart. His face, as he patrolled the room where the gifts were laid out, was drawn and forbidding. Hitherto, at these functions, it had always been his pride that nobody could tell that he was a detective. To-day, a child could have recognized his trade. He looked like Sherlock Holmes.
To the gay throng that surged about him he paid little attention. Usually tense and alert on occasions like this, he now found his mind wandering. He mused sadly on Millicent. And suddenly -- the result, no doubt, of these gloomy meditations, though a glass of wedding champagne may have contributed its mite -- there shot through him, starting at about the third button of his neat waistcoat, a pang of dyspepsia so keen that he felt the pressing necessity of doing something about it immediately.
With a violent effort he contorted his features into a smile. And, as he did so, a stout, bluff man of middle age, with a red face and a grey moustache, who had been hovering near one of the tables, turned and saw him.
'Egad!' he muttered, paling.
Sir Sutton Hartley-Wesping, Bart -- for the red-faced man was he -- had had a pretty good afternoon. Like all baronets who attend Society wedding-receptions, he had been going round the various tables since his arrival, pocketing here a fish-slice, there a jewelled egg-boiler, until now he had taken on about all the cargo his tonnage would warrant, and was thinking of strolling off to the pawnbroker's in the Euston Road, with whom he did most of his business. At the sight of Adrian's smile, he froze where he stood, appalled.
We have seen what the specialist thought of Adrian's smile. Even to him, a man of clear and limpid conscience, it had seemed sardonic and sinister. We can picture, then, the effect it must have had on Sir Sutton Hartley-Wesping.
At all costs, he felt, he must conciliate this leering man. Swiftly removing from his pockets a diamond necklace, five fish-slices, ten cigarette-lighters and a couple of egg-boilers, he placed them on the table and came over to Adrian with a nervous little laugh.
'How are you, my dear fellow?' he said.
Adrian said that he was quite well. And so, indeed, he was. The specialist's recipe had worked like magic. He was mildly surprised at finding himself so cordially addressed by a man whom he did not remember ever having seen before, but he attributed this to the magnetic charm of his personality.
'That's fine,' said the Baronet heartily. 'That's capital. That's splendid. Er -- by the way -- I fancied I saw you smile just now.'
'Yes,' said Adrian. 'I did smile. You see--'
'Of course I see. Of course, my dear fellow. You detected the joke I was playing on our good hostess, and you were amused because you understood that there is no animus, no arrièrepensée, behind these little practical pleasantries -- nothing but good, clean fun, at which nobody would have laughed more heartily than herself. And now, what are you doing this weekend, my dear old chap? Would you care to run down to my place in Sussex?'
'Very kind of you,' began Adrian doubtfully. He was not quite sure that he was in the mood for strange week-ends.
'Here is my card, then. I shall expect you on Friday. Quite a small party. Lord Brangbolton, Sir Jasper Addleton, and a few more. Just loafing about, you know, and a spot of bridge at night. Splendid. Capital. See you, then, on Friday.'
And, carelessly dropping another egg-boiler on the table as he passed, Sir Sutton disappeared.
Any doubts which Adrian might have entertained as to accepting the Baronet's invitation had vanished as he heard the names of his fellow-guests. It always interests a fiancée to meet his fiancée's father and his fiancée's prospective fiancée. For the first time since Millicent had told him the bad news, Adrian became almost cheerful. If, he felt, this baronet had taken such a tremendous fancy to him at first sight, why might it not happen that Lord Brangbolton would be equally drawn to him -- to the extent, in fact, of overlooking his profession and welcoming him as a son-in-law?
He packed, on the Friday, with what was to all intents and purposes a light heart.
A fortunate chance at the very outset of his expedition increased Adrian's optimism. It made him feel that Fate was fighting on his side. As he walked down the platform of Victoria Station, looking for an empty compartment in the train which was to take him to his destination, he perceived a tall, aristocratic old gentleman being assisted into a first-class carriage by a man of butlerine aspect. And in the latter he recognized the servitor who had admitted him to 18a, Upper Brook Street, when he visited the house after solving the riddle of the missing Sealyham. Obviously, then, the white-haired, dignified passenger could be none other than Lord Brangbolton. And Adrian felt that if on a long train journey he failed to ingratiate himself with the old buster, he had vastly mistaken his amiability and winning fascination of manner.
He leaped in, accordingly, as the train began to move, and the Earl, glancing up from his paper, jerked a thumb at the door.
'Get out, blast you!' he said. 'Full up.'
As the compartment was empty but for themselves, Adrian made no move to comply with the request. Indeed, to alight now, to such an extent had the train gathered speed, would have been impossible. Instead, he spoke cordially.
'Lord Brangbolton, I believe?'
'Go to hell,' said his lordship.
|1||The Smile That Wins||9|
|2||The Story of Webster||33|
|3||Cats Will Be Cats||58|
|4||The Knightly Quest of Mervyn||85|
|5||The Voice from the Past||111|
|8||Strychnine in the Soup||186|
Posted March 9, 2009
No text was provided for this review.