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WHEN THE LINER QUEEN [Victoria left New York bound for Southampton and Cherbourg, it was said that two fairly well-known people were aboard, and it was whispered that a highly notorious third person was aboard also. Moreover, there was a fourth—but inconspicuous—person who will take rather a large part in this rowdy and topsy-turvy chronicle. Although he did not know it, this young man had in his luggage something more valuable than the marionettes of M. Fortinbras or the emerald elephant of Lord Sturton, which partly explains why there were puzzles and high carnival in the sedate bosom of the Queen Victoria, and monkey business not altogether according to the customary pattern.
No more dignified ship than the Queen Victoria flies the house-flag of any British line. She is what is sometimes described as a "family" boat: which means that no hilarity is permitted in her state-room after 11 P.M., and all the cross-ocean changes in time are punctiliously observed—so that the bar always closes three-quarters of an hour before you expect it, and makes you swear. Melancholy passengers sit in her glazed writing-room and seem to be composing letters to the relatives of the deceased. In the heavily-ornamented lounge there is soft conversation, not so loud as the creaking of woodwork when the green swell lifts and glitters past the portholes; and knitting is in progress before some electric lights arranged to represent a fire. There is a semblance of gaiety when a serious-minded orchestra plays in the gallery of the dining-saloon at lunch and dinner. But there was one east-bound crossing, in the spring of last year, which Commander Sir Hector Whistler will never forget. Under his professional bluff camaraderie Captain Whistler possesses the most pyrotechnic temper of any skipper who had forsaken sail for steam, and the richness of his language is the admiration of junior officers. When, therefore—
The Queen Victoria was to dock at Southampton on the afternoon of May 18th, after the weirdest voyage she had ever made. On the morning of the next day Mr. Henry Morgan was ringing the bell of Dr. Fell's new house at No. 1 Adelphi Terrace. Henry Morgan, it may be remembered, was that eminent writer of detective stories who took his own profession with unbecoming levity, and who had made Dr. Fell's acquaintance during the case of the Eight of Swords. On this particular morning—when there was a smokey sun on the river and the quiet gardens below Adelphi Terrace—Morgan's long, bespectacled, deceptively-melancholy face wore an expression which might have been anger or amusement. But he certainly looked like a man who had been through much; as he had.
Dr. Fell boomed a welcome, greeted him warmly, and pressed upon him a tankard of beer. The doctor, his guest saw, was stouter and more red-faced than ever. He bulged out over a deep chair in the embrasure of one of the tall windows overlooking the river. The high room, with its Adam fireplace, had been set to rights since Morgan had seen it some months before, when Dr. and Mrs. Fell moved in. It was still untidy, for that was the doctor's way; but the five-thousand-odd books had been crammed somehow into their oak shelves, and the litter of junk had found place in corners and nooks. Dr. Fell has an old-fashioned weakness for junk, especially for bright pictures of the hunting-print or Dickens variety, and scenes showing people getting out of stage-coaches and holding up mugs of beer before country inns. He also likes carved porcelain tankards with pewter lids, curious book-ends, ash-trays filched from pubs, statuettes of monk or devil, and other childish things which, nevertheless—in the sombre room with the oak bookshelves, with the frayed carpet on the floor—formed a fitting background for his Gargantuan presence. He sat in his chair in the window embrasure, before a broad study table littered with books and papers; there was a grin under his bandit's moustache, and a twinkle in his eye as he blinked at his visitor over eyeglasses on a broad black ribbon. And when the cigars had been lighted Dr. Fell said:
"I may be mistaken, my boy, but I seem to detect a professional gleam in your eye." He wheezed and folded his big hands on the table. "Is there anything on your mind, hey?"
"There is," said Morgan grimly. "I have to unfold just about the rummiest story you've ever listened to, if you've got time to hear it. It's rather a long one, but I don't think it'll bore you. And—if you want any corroboration—I've taken the liberty of asking Curt Warren to come round here ..."
"Heh!" said Dr. Fell, rubbing his hands delightedly. "Heh-heh-hehe! This is like old times. Of course I've got time. And bring round anybody you like. Replenish that glass again and let's have the details."
Morgan took a deep drink and a deep breath.
"First," he said, in the manner of one commencing lecture, "I would direct your attention to a group of people sitting at the captain's table on the good ship Queen Victoria. Among whom, fortunately or unfortunately, I was one.
"From the beginning I thought it would be a dull crossing; everybody seemed to be injected with virtue like embalming fluid, and half an hour after the bar had opened there were only two people in it, not counting myself. That was how I made the acquaintance of Valvick and Warren.
"Captain Thomassen Valvick was a Norwegian ex-skipper who used to command cargo and passenger boats on the North Atlantic route; now retired, and living in a cottage in Baltimore with a wife, a Ford, and nine children. He was as big as a prizefighter, with a sandy moustache, a lot of massive gestures, and a habit of snorting through his nose before he laughed. And he was the most genial soul who ever sat up all night telling incredible yarns, which were all the funnier in his strong squarehead accent, and he never minded if you called him a liar. He had twinkling, pale-blue eyes half-shut up in a lot of wrinkles and a sandy, wrinkled face, and absolutely no sense of dignity. I could see it was going to be an uncomfortable voyage for Captain Sir Hector Whistler.
"Because, you see, Captain Valvick had known the skipper of the Queen Victoria in the old days before Whistler became the stuffed and stern professional gentleman at the head of the table. There was Whistler—growing stout, with his jaw drawn in like his shoulders, strung with gold braid like a Christmas tree there was Whistler, his eye always on Valvick. He watched Valvick exactly as you'd watch a plate of soup at a ship's table in heavy weather; but it never kept the old squarehead quiet or muzzled his stories.
"At first it didn't matter greatly. We ran into heavy weather immediately and unexpectedly; rain-squalls, and a dizzying combination of pitch-and-roll that drove almost all the passengers to their state-rooms. Those polished lounges and saloons were deserted to the point of ghostliness; the passages creaked like wickerwork being ripped apart, the sea went past with a dip and roar that slung against the bulkhead or pitched you forward on the rise, and navigating a staircase was an adventure. Personally, I like bad weather. I like the wind tearing in when you open a door; I like the smell of white paint and polished brass, which they say is what brings the sea-sickness, when a corridor is writhing and dropping like a lift. But some people don't care for it. As a result, there were only six of us at the captain's table: Whistler, Valvick, Margaret Glenn, Warren, Dr. Kyle, and myself. The two near-celebrities we wanted to see were both represented by vacant chairs ... They were old Fortinbras, who runs what has become a very swank marionette-theatre, and the Viscount Sturton. Know either one of them?"
Dr. Fell rumpled his big mop of grey-streaked hair.
"Fortinbras!" he rumbled. "Haven't I seen something about it recently in the highbrow magazines? It's a theatre somewhere in London where the marionettes are nearly life-size and as heavy as real people; he stages classic French drama or something—?"
"Right," said Morgan, nodding, "He's been doing that to amuse himself, or out of a mystic sense of preserving the Higher Arts, for the past ten or twelve years; he's got a little box of a theatre with bare benches, seating about fifty people, somewhere in Soho. Nobody ever used to go there but all the kids in the foreign colony, who were wild about it. Old Fortinbras's pièce de résistance was his dramatisation of 'The Song of Roland,' in French blank verse. I got all this from Peggy Glenn. She says he took most of the parts himself, thundering out the noble lines from back-stage, while he and an assistant worked the figures. The marionettes' weight—nearly eight stone, each of 'em stuffed with sawdust and with all the armour, swords and trappings—was supported by a trolley on which the figures were run along, and a complicated set of wires worked their arms and legs. That was very necessary, because what they did mostly was fight; and the kids in the audience would hop up and down and cheer themselves hoarse.
"The kids, you see, never paid any attention to the lofty sentiments. They probably didn't even hear them or understand what it was all about. All they knew was that out would stagger the Emperor Charlemagne on the stage, in gold armour and a scarlet cloak, with a sword in one hand and a battle-axe in the other. After him would come bumping and reeling all the nobles of his court, with equally bright clothes and equally lethal weapons. From the other side would come in the Emperor of the Moors and his gang, armed to the eyebrows. Then all the puppets would lean against the air in various overbalanced positions while Charlemagne, with a voice of thunder said, 'Pry, thee, friend, gadzooks, gramercy, what ho, sirrah!,' and made a blank-verse speech lasting nearly twenty minutes. It was to the effect that the Moors had no business in France, and had better get to hell out of there—or else. The Emperor of the Moors lifted his sword and replied with a fifteen-minute address whose purport was, 'Says you!' And Charlemagne, whooping out his war-cry, up and dots him one with the battle-axe.
"That was the real beginning, you see. The puppets rose from the stage and sailed at each other like fowls across a cockpit, thrashing their swords and kicking up a battle that nearly brought down the roof. Every so often one of them would be released from the trolley as dead, and would crash down on the stage and raise a fog of dust. In the fog the battle kept on whirling and clashing, and old Fortinbras rushed behind the scenes screaming himself hoarse with noble speeches, until the kids were delirious with excitement. Then down would tumble the curtain; and out would come old Fortinbras, bowing and puffing and wiping the sweat off his face, supremely happy at the cheers of the audience; and he would make a speech about the glory of France which they applauded just as loudly without knowing what he was talking about ... He was a happy artist; an appreciated artist.
"Well, the thing was inevitable. Sooner or later the high-brows would 'discover' him, and his art; and somebody did. He became famous overnight, a misunderstood genius whom the British public had shamefully neglected. No kids could get into the place now; it was all top-hats and people who wanted to discuss Corneille and Racine. I gather that the old boy was rather puzzled. Anyhow, he got a thumping offer to exhibit his various classic dramas in America, and it was one long triumphal tour ..."
Morgan drew a deep breath.
"All this, as I say, I got from Miss Glenn, who is—and has been long before the thing grew popular—a sort of secretary and general manager for the foggy old boy. She's some sort of relation of his on her mother's side. Her father was a country parson or schoolmaster or something; and when he died, she came to London and nearly starved until old Jules took her in. She's devilish good-looking, and seems prim and stiffish until you realise how much devilment there is in her, or until she's had a few drinks; then she's a glittering holy terror.
"Peggy Glenn, then, made the next member of our group, and was closely followed by my friend, Curtis Warren.
"You'll like Curt. He's a harum-scarum sort, the favourite nephew of a certain Great Personage in the present American Government ..."
"What personage?" inquired Dr. Fell. "I don't know of any Warren who is—"
"It's on his mother's side," he replied. "That has a good deal to do with my story; so we'll say for the moment only a Great Personage, not far from F. D. himself. This Great Personage, by the way, is the most dignified and pompous figure in politics; the glossiest Top-Hat, the neatest Trouser-Press, the prince of unsplit infinitives and undamaged etiquette ... Anyhow, he pulled some wires (you're not supposed to be able to do this) and landed Curt a berth in the Consular Service. It isn't a very good berth; some God-forsaken hole out in Palestine or somewhere, but Curt was coming over for a holiday round Europe before he took over the heavy labour of stamping invoices or what-not. His hobby, by the way, is the making of amateur moving-pictures. He's wealthy, and I gather he's got not only a full-sized camera, but also a sound apparatus of the sort the news-reel men carry.
"But, speaking of Great Personages, we now come to the other celebrity aboard the Queen Victoria, also paralysed with sea-sickness. This was none other than Lord Sturton—you know—the one they call the Hermit of Jermyn Street. He'll see nobody; he has no friends; all he does is collect bits of rare jewellery ..."
Dr. Fell took the pipe out of his mouth and blinked.
"Look here," he said suspiciously, "there's something I want to know before you go on. Is this by any chance the familiar chestnut about the fabulous diamond known as the Lake of Light, or some such term, which was pinched out of the left eye of an idol at Burma, and is being stalked by a sinister stranger in a turban? Because, if it is, I'll be damned if I listen to you ..."
Morgan wrinkled his forehead sardonically.
"No," he said. "I told you it was a rummy thing; it's much queerer than that. But I'm bound to confess that a jewel does figure in the story—it was what tangled us up and raised all the hell when the wires got crossed—but nobody ever intended it to figure at all."
"H'm!" said Dr. Fell, peering at him.
"And also I am bound to admit that the jewel got stolen—"
"By me," said Morgan unexpectedly. He shifted. "Or by several of us, to be exact. I tell you it was a nightmare. The thing was an emerald elephant, a big pendant thing of no historical interest but of enormous intrinsic value. It was a curiosity, a rarity; that's why Sturton went after it. It was an open secret that he had been negotiating to buy it from one of the busted millionaires in New York. Well, he'd got it right enough; I had that from Curt Warren. The Great Personage, Curt's uncle, is a friend of Sturton's, and Curt's uncle told him all about it just before Curt sailed. Probably half the people on the boat heard the rumour. I know we were all waiting to catch a glimpse of him when he came aboard—queer, sandy old chap with ancient side-whiskers and a hanging jaw; only attendant a secretary. He popped up the gangway all swathed round in checked comforters, and cursed everybody in reach.
"Now it's a very odd thing, for a variety of reasons, that you should have mentioned the old familiar story about the fabulous jewel. Because, on the afternoon when all the trouble started—it was the late afternoon of the fourth day out, and we were to dock three days later—Peggy Glenn and Skipper Valvick and I had been discussing this emerald elephant, in the way you do when you're lying back in a deck-chair with a robe across your knees, and nothing much to think about except when the bugle will blow for tea. We discussed whether it was in Lord Sturton's possession or locked in the captain's safe, and, in either case, how you could steal it. Peggy, I know, had evolved a very complicated and ingenious plan; but I wasn't listening closely. We had all got to know one another pretty well in those four days, and we stood on very little ceremony.
"As a matter of fact," said Morgan, "I was more than half-asleep. Then—"
Excerpted from The Blind Barber by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1962 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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