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Scandal at High Chimneys
By John Dickson Carr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Clarice M. Carr, Julia McNiven, Mary B. Howes and Bonita Marie Cron
All rights reserved.
SHAPES OF DREAD
It concerned Kate and Celia Damon, two sisters of whom people said that they did not seem at all like sisters. Kate was the dark one, Celia the fair. Kate inclined towards boldness and high spirits, Celia was demure but intense. That both were extremely pretty could not be denied.
"And, indeed, when they are married—" the second Mrs. Damon once remarked.
Mr. Matthew Damon turned in his stately way.
"They are too young for marriage," he said.
"Matthew, you astonish me. If I am correctly informed, Celia is twenty and Kate fully nineteen. How much older would you have them?"
"There is time in plenty to think of such matters. Meanwhile, let them be a credit to their upbringing and a comfort to our old age."
"Old age?" repeated the girls' stepmother, who herself was auburn-haired and handsome. "Speak for yourself, Mr. Damon!"
Then she cowered before the other's suppressed violence.
"Yet I do say it," he retorted. "Madam, I will hear no more of this; at least, not yet. Let them be a credit to us; that is enough. They are good girls, even in such fast times as ours."
Now this may have been exaggerated, perhaps as regards the times and certainly as regards one of the Damon sisters. But Matthew Damon, a man of the world and no fool, had much justification for what he said.
Rigid decorum ruled the drawing-room. No shock must be brought to the cheek or heart of a young lady in her crinoline and pork-pie hat. Few besides Miss Nightingale would have thought of seeing the Crimea. Yet on the fringes of their well-to-do world, for many hundred yards from the Regent Circus to the top of the Haymarket and then eastwards to Leicester Square, brawled a night-life more vulgar than that of Paris because there was so little joy in it.
"Sparring snobs," wrote one who was no fool either, "and flashing satins, and sporting swells, and painted cheeks, and brandy-sparkling eyes, and bad tobacco, and hoarse horselaughs, and long indecency. I can take personally an example from three quarters of the globe; but I have never anywhere witnessed such open ruffianism and wretched profligacy as rings along those Piccadilly flagstones any time after the gas is lighted."
That hardly mattered, it was true. We had prosperity to buttress us, and prove such conditions didn't exist.
We knew everything, or nearly everything. The railway, the steamship, the electric telegraph had abolished time and distance. Prosperity made a din like the noise of its own wheels and hammers, shrouding London in smoke and bringing darker fashions in clothes than did the death of the Prince Consort.
"We are proud of it," everyone said.
On the other hand, though we worshipped a sound money-changing God, we shivered pleasantly at the thought of outer darkness. Ghost stories had never been so popular. Of course, when murder entered the circle of Matthew Damon's family, with two violent deaths and a murderer who wasn't there, nobody at High Chimneys really believed in the supernatural. The problem was to account for the murderer's behaviour.
And this was the manner of it:
One night in October, during the full tide of Victorianism in the year 1865, a young man got out of a hansom at Bryce's Club in Dover Street.
His name was Clive Strickland, and he was a likeable fellow even if he appeared somewhat formal and conventional. The clocks had only just gone six; he knew he could get no dinner there until seven. But Clive Strickland only wanted to sit quietly, in an otherwise deserted smoking-room, and think about the new serial story he was writing for All the Year Round.
The foyer at Bryce's Club, a melancholy place of black and white tile flagstones, is haunted by an odour of damp greatcoats and boiled mutton. Pearson, the hall-porter, peered out of the glass cubicle as he heard Clive's footsteps.
"Good evening, sir. Gentleman to see you."
"Thank you, Pearson. Who is it?"
"I've shown him into the visitors' room, sir," said Pearson, craftily refusing to answer.
It was not necessary to answer. Victor Damon, in formal evening-clothes like Clive's own, hurried out of the visitors' room and stopped short. Clive could not have been more surprised if Victor, the butterfly, had turned up in a bench of bishops.
"Got to see you, old boy," declared Victor, fingering his very broad white tie below the high collar. "It's rather important. In here, eh?"
And he bolted back into the visitors' room.
Only one hat and greatcoat, Victor's, hung amid many pegs on the wall of the foyer. Clive Strickland added his own to them and followed. Victor, his hands under his coattails and his back to the fire, stared out of gloom.
"Look here, Victor, what the devil is the matter with you?"
"Nothing," Victor assured him. "Nothing at all, give you my honour! Only—it's the governor."
"What about your father? Between ourselves, have you been getting into debt again?"
"Good God, no," said Victor, plainly startled.
"Then what is it?"
"You've met my two sisters, I think? Kate and Celia?"
"I have had that honour, yes."
"Well, old boy," said Victor, moving his neck, "I want you to do me a very great favour. I want you to go down to High Chimneys tomorrow, and ask for Celia's hand in marriage."
Clive Strickland did not utter an exclamation or even show any surprise. But he was not sure he had heard properly.
The fire in the visitors' room was always poor and smoky, and its lights turned low to save expense. Stepping past Victor, Clive brightened the gas-jets in their flattish glass dishes on either side of the chimneypiece. Victor Damon's face, waveringly, sprang up at him.
Though Victor was not much more than twenty-one, slender and delicate-featured, he had grown a fairly heavy moustache like his heavy light-brown hair. His evening-clothes showed the most fashionable full-cut, his gold watch-chain was ponderous.
Clive would politely have claimed friendship with both the sisters, but in fact he had not seen them since they were in their early teens and hardly remembered either of them. It was the imaginative son he knew; Clive, having visited High Chimneys with his own parents in the old days, later became pretty well acquainted with Victor in London. Nor could he forget Victor's formidable father.
Matthew Damon, tall and tight-lipped, presented an enigma to any writer of fiction. And Mr. Damon, barrister-at-law, had no need of the law as a profession; he was very wealthy in his own right. Clive judged him to be essentially a kindly man, though a terrifying prosecutor when he appeared for the Crown, and not too easy-mannered among his very few friends.
But still it seemed odd that Matthew Damon, who was also deeply religious in the old Evangelical way, should be followed everywhere by so many furtive speculations and half-whispers. It was not only that he had married again, after remaining a widower since Victor and Celia and Kate were small children. It was also ...
"Well, old boy?" demanded Victor, suddenly moving away from the fire and turning round.
Clive woke up.
"I am forgetting myself, Victor," he said, and reached towards the bell. "What will you have to drink?"
"Nothing, I thank you," retorted Victor, even more surprisingly. "What d'ye say, old boy? About what I say?"
"It is a great honour, of course, to be asked to marry Miss Celia—"
"You?" exclaimed Victor. His hand went up to his moustache. "Damme, Clive, I didn't mean you were to marry her."
"No! You're a good feller, but you're no great catch. I mean to say: you're a lawyer, ain't you? You were a solicitor or something, before you began writing novels?"
"I was a barrister."
"That'll do. You're still empowered to arrange marriages, I daresay? You can go down and talk it over with the governor?"
"Arrange Celia's marriage? To whom?"
"If you mean Lord Albert Tressider ..."
Clive would have spoken at some length, but Victor cut him off.
"Sh-h!" he urged. No footstep creaked in the room, where gaslight shone on either side of the black chimneypiece. Victor craned his neck round to glance at the door. "Sh-h!" he repeated. "Don't speak so loudly! And Tress'll be here at any minute, so mind you call him 'my lord.'"
"Quite frankly, I'm damned if I will."
"You don't like Tress," Victor said in an accusing tone.
"No; I don't like him."
"But that's neither here nor there. His pa's a marquess. He's taken quite a fancy to little Celia, and he'll have her as neat as ninepence if we play our cards properly. How many girls get the chance to many into the peerage? And my governor, bless him, is still rather a snob when all's said. Tomorrow afternoon you must go down and speak to him."
"Victor, I won't do it."
"In the first place," Clive raised his voice, "it's not a barrister's business. In the second place, even if it were, that's the very last commission I should care to undertake. It's a matter for Tress's own solicitor, if it's a matter for anybody at all. Why do you ask me?"
"Because the governor likes you. On my honour! Reads all your stories; says they're not half bad either. Besides, we keep it among friends."
"Tell me, now: does your father know anything whatever about this proposed marriage?"
"No! Not yet."
"Does Celia herself know anything about it?"
"Victor," Clive said abruptly, "what's wrong at High Chimneys?"
His companion stood motionless, hand going again to his moustache. A boisterous autumn night, blowing all the waste-paper which is as thick as grit in London streets, whooped outside. Though the windows might be sealed with thick dingy-green curtains as all their lives (they hoped) were shrouded and sealed from view, the wind found loose frames; draughts carried away most scents except the pervasiveness of the damp greatcoats and the boiled mutton.
"Now don't tell me," insisted Clive, "that a match between Celia and Tress would be advantageous in the world's eyes. No doubt it would be. All the same! I always understood you were fond of Celia."
"So I am. Devil take it! So I am."
"But you sound as though you want to get Celia safely married, spirited away from your father's house and out of sight, as quickly and secretly as you can manage."
"It's not only a question of Celia. It's—it's a question of Kate too!"
"Get her married," said Victor.
"That's what I mean. Do you want to pitch both your sisters into the matrimonial cart without so much as a by-your-leave to either? Why?"
Victor opened his mouth to speak, and shut it on the first word. In Clive's mind rose again the image of Matthew Damon: bedevilled, inflexibly honest, with a handsome young wife and a fine country-house near Reading, yet his career clouded with whispers and a wonder among the initiated that all honours had passed him by.
There were even some who laughed when they spoke of him.
In another moment, Clive thought, Victor would have told him the whole story. Victor had begun, "You see—" when there were footsteps out in the foyer. A loud, cool voice rose above the obsequious tones of the hall-porter. Tress himself, escorted by the porter, appeared in the doorway and smiled in his agreeable way.
"Ah, Damon," he said by way of greeting.
"I say! Tress, old fellow! You're early, ain't you? The fact is, I hadn't—"
"Hadn't finished talking with the attorney?" inquired Tress, raising his eyebrows. "You should have, you know. I gave you plenty of time, and I don't like to be kept waiting. Perhaps it's just as well, though. To tell you the truth, Damon, I've half a mind to call it off."
"Call it off?"
"Cry quits, if you like," Tress said coolly. "Say Miss Celia Damon's too good for me, and here's my compliments and good-bye."
Tress laughed, a great deep laugh without much noise, and sauntered towards the fire.
Victor hastened to the door, closing it with a hollow slam which billowed its tasselled door-curtain, and then hurried after Tress.
"Why?" he insisted.
Tress spread out his hands to the fire. He was a burly young man, with stiffish dark-yellow hair and whiskers round a stolidly handsome face. He towered above Victor, diffusing animal vitality. Over his evening-clothes Tress wore a plum-blue greatcoat with an astrakhan collar, and carried a hat whose nap was a gossamer silk.
"The fact is, Damon, you haven't been very frank with me. I can't say I like that either. I've been hearing things, you know."
It was unwise to prod the mild-seeming Victor, whose head jerked up and back.
"If you've heard one word against Celia, it's a lie."
"Tush! Come, now! What a sputtering little Lucifer it is!" Tress grinned. Then his tone changed. "Not to do with your sister, Damon. It's to do with your governor-general."
"My father's never done anything he shouldn't have done!"
"Oh? He married an actress, didn't he?"
"It's no fault of Celia's if he did. Anyway, my stepmother is a dashed fine woman! I admire her!"
"We all admire 'em, Damon. But we don't receive 'em in our homes, you know."
Suddenly Victor lifted his hands and pressed them over his eyes.
"And that's not all, you know," Tress pointed out. "I talked to Serjeant Ballantine only yesterday. It seems your governor used to have uncommonly queer tastes. He enjoyed making up to women who'd committed murder."
Victor snatched his hands away from his eyes.
"Fact, you know," said Tress. "He would prosecute 'em, all as virtuous as an Old Testament prophet. Afterwards he'd go to Newgate and visit 'em any number of times before they were hanged three weeks later. Of course he pretended it was to pray with 'em and relieve his conscience, but Serjeant Ballantine says that's all my eye. Your governor-general was quite spooney about two or three of them, especially the young and pretty ones. It seems he couldn't resist 'em."
"God!" whispered Victor.
Wind whistled in Dover Street; the chimney growled under a cold sky.
"Tress, does this mean you won't have Celia?" Victor cried. "Does this mean you'll go back on your offer, Tress?"
Tress, after waiting for a moment or two, uttered his deep almost noiseless chuckle.
"Oh, come! Not a bit of it, my boy. I'm in something of a financial hole, you know; the younger son usually is; and your governor-general's money is as good as anybody else's. I offered my name; I'll stand by it."
There were those who called Clive Strickland a too-conventional young man, even by the standards of this year 1865. He was not. Clive, who had taken out his cigar-case, flung it into a padded chair near the fire.
"That's very generous of you," he said; and Tress, raising poised eyebrows, slowly looked him up and down.
"You said something, Strickland?"
"Yes. I did. Have you troubled to ask Miss Damon what she thinks of all this? Or thinks of you either?"
"Why, no. No, Mr. Attorney. I can't say I have."
"Has it also occurred to you, Tressider, that 'attorney' is a confoundedly offensive term?"
"Is it, now?" inquired Tress. "'Pon my sang I don't know, and 'pon my sang I don't care."
Victor was in agony.
"Tress, don't antagonize him. For heaven's sake don't antagonize him, Tress. Clive don't like this business at all; he don't for a fact; and he may not help me if you put his back up."
"Well, then, we'll find somebody else. Strickland might do worse than earn his keep; this book-writing, you know, isn't very much. However, I'll go along and leave you to it. If you care to stroll into the Argyll Rooms about eleven, I'll stand Sam for a bottle to celebrate. Good evening, Damon."
And Tress, having derived some amusement from all this, put on his tall hat and patted it into place. After settling his shoulders, after examining his bristly chin-whisker in the looking-glass over the fireplace, he smiled agreeably and moved away like a tame tiger. Once more the heavy door, this time caught in a draught, closed with a slam that went echoing up through a club devoted to writers, painters, musicians, and other mountebanks.
Victor swallowed hard.
"I know what you're thinking of me," he said. "I know, and I can't blame you. But don't make a judgment too quickly."
"No! Look here, old boy. There are any number of trains tomorrow, but your best is the Bath-and-Bristol Express. That leaves the depot in the afternoon and stops at Reading. I can write a telegram, d'ye see, so that Burbage will meet you with the carriage."
Clive, who had bent over to retrieve his cigar-case, straightened up.
"Victor, do you seriously imagine I mean to do that?"
"You must, old boy. Pray believe me!"
"For instance," said Clive, "you see no objection to having a sister of yours married to the gentleman who's just left us?"
"No; I can't see any objection." Victor's voice went high. "But that's not the point. You were right about one thing. I'd have Kate or Celia married to anybody, anybody at all reasonable or presentable, as long as they were safely away from High Chimneys and out of danger."
Excerpted from Scandal at High Chimneys by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1987 Clarice M. Carr, Julia McNiven, Mary B. Howes and Bonita Marie Cron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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