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"A story of crime and detection in Paris among sophisticated moderns."--New York Times.
If anyone had told him, on the afternoon of May 15th, that only a day later he would be in Paris: that he would be involved in the rather sensational murder case which came to be known as the affair of the Four False Weapons, even as a spectator: he would have suspected someone of having surprised his dreams. And it would have embarrassed him beyond measure.
On the afternoon of May 15th he sat at his desk by the window, looking out dourly into Southampton Street, W.C.I. He was "Mr. Curtis, junior," or "our Mr. Richard," of the law-firm of Curtis, Hunt, D'Arcy, and Curtis. But at the moment he was reflecting that anyone who voluntarily becomes a solicitor must be a prize mug. It is true that he was lucky to be a junior partner, and lucky to look on even so non-hilarious a thoroughfare as Southampton Street, W.C.I. The offices of Curtis, Hunt, D'Arcy, and Curtis consist of a vast series of small cubicles or compartments run together like a maze round inner courts and air-wells. A visitor is under the impression that everybody must have to walk through everybody else's room in order to get anywhere. The premises are somewhat mouldy, and are not enlivened by spinster typists and pictures of dyspeptic-looking gentlemen with beards.
The truth of the matter was that Mr. Richard Curtis, Junior, was thoroughly bored with things in general.
A client (supposing one to have been sent in to him, which occurred seldom) would have been deceived by his appearance. A client would have seen a sturdy, solid, sedate-looking young man in blue serge, with an air of listening in courteous gravity to the client's troubles. This was due to the training of his father, the head of the firm, who had a beard like the men in the pictures. But the client would have been deceived. Under some papers, which he had arranged with a decent show of being busy, Richard Curtis had re-written the first lines of the Lawyer's Ode to Spring:
"Whereas, on sundry leaves and boughs,
Now divers birds do sing;
They mingle in aforesaid trees—
To wit: their carolling."
Which was one way of blowing off the steam of boredom, less obvious than shouting, "Yah!" and biting Miss Breedon, the senior typist. For it was spring verging into summer through Southampton Street, to which his pulses responded.
Thus a client would have been surprised at the daydreams with which Richard Curtis peopled this office. While he looked his sternest, his imagination went another way. Into this office (say) would come a distinguished Personage in a black cloak with the collar turned up, and look round swiftly.
"Mr. Curtis," the Personage would say, "I have a mission for you to undertake. I must speak quickly, for we are watched. Here are three passports and an automatic pistol. You will proceed at once to Cairo, in whatever disguise you think fit; but take care that you are not followed by a man whose cufflinks take the form of a small black cross. Arrived in Cairo, you will proceed to the Street of the Seven Cobras, to a house which you will identify by—"
Some severely practical instinct at the back of Curtis's head told him that this was a lot of flapdoodle, and that even in dreams one ought to be right about the facts. But it was a fine dream; he rioted in it.
"—and there you will meet a Lady; need I say a beautiful lady?" the Personage would add, rather superfluously. "Here, then, are a thousand pounds for current expenses—"
At this point, in the actual world of the office, there was a knock at Curtis's door. It was not a Lady, a beautiful lady; it was Miss Breedon, the senior typist, and she said:
"If you please, sir, Mr. Hunt would like to see you in his office."
Curtis got up and went towards Hunt's office without enthusiasm. Since his father had retired from active duty, Hunt was the senior acting partner. And young Curtis had been disappointed in Hunt. For a little time he had hoped for great things from the dry, lean, snuffy model of dignity which was Charles Grandison Hunt. There was a current rumor that there was More in Old Hunt than Met the Eye. It was even reported that he was fond of limericks. Curtis doubted this. To him the idea of old Hunt reciting a limerick was as fantastic as any Personage offering a thousand pounds for current expenses. All the same, he had sometimes imagined even Hunt saying, "Mr. Curtis, I have a mission for you to undertake—"
He tapped at Hunt's door, and was asked to enter in the familiar voice which always seemed to be preceded by a strong inhalation through the nose. Hunt sat at his desk, his pince-nez on his nose and his chin drawn in.
"Mr. Curtis," said Hunt, with an even stronger inhalation, "I have a mission for you to undertake. Could you be prepared to go to Paris by the evening plane?"
Curtis was not quite able to believe his ears.
"Could I!" he said.
Mr. Grandison Hunt deprecated this, eyeing him up and down. He sniffed again; he even dropped the formal style of address.
"No, no, Richard," he said. "This will not do. I perceive in you a certain unfortunate vein of—ah—pop and sizzle, which we must eliminate if we are to make you a credit to Curtis, Hunt, D'Arcy, and Curtis." He considered. "Now tell me frankly, Richard: do you consider our offices in the least a humdrum place?"
"Well, sir, what do you think?" inquired Curtis. "I've been sitting at that blasted desk—"
"Precisely," interposed Hunt, raising one finger as though he had proved a point. "Another question. You are aware, of course," he nodded towards the tiers of steel boxes behind him, "that our professional dealings are chiefly with the more conservative families of Great Britain, and certain English families abroad?"
"I've been allowed to know that much, anyhow. That's why—"
"Ah! That is why you consider it necessarily humdrum?" Over Hunt's face went a shadow which in anyone else's case might have been a smile. "At the moment, Richard, I have not the time to go into the matter fully. But a little mature reflection will convince you that dealing with such families is precisely the reverse of humdrum. In the nature of things it must be so. With such families there is leisure. There is money. There is a freedom from that stern respectability which makes England the most moral nation in the world. As a result, they produce more—more—ah—"
"Loonies?" suggested Curtis, with deplorable candor. "Here, I say! This is plain Socialism."
Hunt came as near a sputter as his nature would permit.
"Not at all," he said. "I believe it can be demonstrated that there is a higher level of intelligence and achievement in the House of Lords than in the House of Commons. You will say,"—he took his pince-nez off his nose, forestalling the objection,—"that this proves little. I agree. Nevertheless, I state the fact. What I wish to point out is this: the more conservative the legal firm, the more dangerous will be the affairs it must handle. The most familiar legend of the great Doctor Samuel Johnson is that Boswell once asked him, "Sir, what would you do if you were locked up in a tower with a baby?" The great doctor appears to have been annoyed at this, and the whole world has united in terming it the outstanding example of an asinine question. I do not agree. Boswell was a lawyer, and knew exactly what he was about. It is precisely the sort of question which we must know how to answer, and precisely the sort of situation with which we must know how to deal.
"We will now return to business," Hunt concluded, setting his pince-nez back on his nose by way of emphasis.
"I am sending you to Paris," pursued Hunt, "on behalf of a client of ours who lives there, a Mr. Ralph Douglas. You have heard of him?"
"If he's the one I think you mean," Curtis said, "I certainly have. Wine, women, and song, isn't it? His Dame de Trefles won the Grand Prix last year. Afterwards he had that party—"
"Yes, he has been rather a pink 'un," said Hunt with judicial gravity. He coughed, correcting himself. "However, that is not the point. What I wish to impress on you, Richard, is that Mr. Douglas is an irresponsible young man no longer. No longer! I am instructed to say that never has there been a more complete transformation. He sees the dawn up no longer. At the request of his future mother-in-law, he has even sold his racing-stable; though I fail to see," added Hunt, acidly, "that the sport of kings is not a sport for gentlemen. But his future mother-in-law, I believe, has stern views as to the morality of racing—"
"You mean Douglas has fallen in love and reformed?"
"Exactly," agreed Hunt, with a sort of pounce as though his companion had coined a refreshing new phrase. "He is to be married next month to Miss Magda Toller. His future mother-in-law is Mrs. Benedict Toller, widow, and now head of the travel-bureau called Toller's Tours. Do not form the wrong impression of Mrs. Toller, Richard: she is neither old nor dowdy. On the contrary, Mrs. Toller is a woman in the prime of life; extremely fashionable, extremely hard-headed; and you might call her handsome but for a very large, very thin nose, which tilts up slightly and is to me an abomination. Her moral views ... but no matter. She has made strenuous opposition to her daughter's marriage to Mr. Douglas. Her own candidate, I believe, was Mr. Bryce Douglas, Ralph Douglas's brother, a go-ahead young gentleman in the Diplomatic Service. Her consent to the present marriage was gained with extreme difficulty."
Curtis still did not see where his own mission entered into this.
"Her consent?" he repeated. "Isn't the girl of age?"
"She has reached the age of discretion," said Hunt, "and therefore finds it more convenient to obey her mother. I should describe Miss Magda Toller as one of our—er, sensible beauties. Again, do not misunderstand. There seems no doubt that the young pair are altogether in love; but—there is a difficulty. That difficulty is a certain Mlle. Rose Klonec."
"An old flame of Douglas's?"
"Who wants to be bought off."
"No," said Hunt.
He opened the drawer of his desk and took out a closely written sheet of notepaper. After studying it again, with a sharper inhalation, he pushed it across to Curtis. It was headed, 35bis Avenue Foch, Friday night, and ran:
This is the fifth draft I've made tonight of a letter attempting to explain things, and still I can't get at it. It goes on and on, and gets much too complicated, so that I have to break off about the second or third page without anything really said. I have decided that the only way it can be done successfully is in person. It's like this: I am having a spot of bother, and I need advice. I should be damnably obliged if you could come over to Paris, if only for a few hours. I would come to London like a shot, only Magda and Mrs. Toller are here (at the Crillon) and I can't get away.
I suppose you know about my being mixed up, a couple of years ago, with a poule-de-luxe named Rose Klonec. I kept her for over a year, and ruddy expensive she was, too. Now, wait—my difficulty isn't what you're thinking, breach of promise or the like. La Klonec (she is Polish-English) is well known here, and had a string of backers before she met me. In fact, I seem to have been the only one who ever chucked her before she got everything he had. Probably because I met Magda and cooled off.
The trouble is this. When we first got together, I bought a villa on the edge of the Forest of Marly and installed her in it. It's one of those too-fancy places: red spotted marble like the Trianon, and windows going up to the roof, and all the trappings. When we broke up she moved out, and the place has been empty ever since. But there's something very, very fishy going on about that villa now, and La Klonec is concerned in it. That's all I'm going to tell you here, except that I think it's serious.
Could you possibly manage to come over here and have a talk?
As ever, RALPH DOUGLAS.
Though Curtis's imagination was already at work, he read it through with a puzzled frown.
"But what's on his mind, sir? What's bothering him?"
"I have not the slightest idea," said Hunt with some austerity. "That is why you are going to Paris. You will take the evening plane, and put up at the Meurice. I will cable Mr. Douglas that you will call on him at his flat—make a note of the address—at ten o'clock tomorrow morning precisely. It is Sunday; but that should have a sobering effect on the conversation. I only ask you to remember Boswell and the baby. The matter may not be of the least importance. On the other hand, does anything strike you about the letter?"
"Yes. I was wondering whether the Tollers know anything about Rose Klonec."
Hunt frowned, an expression which gave to his face an acutely dyspeptic look. "That I cannot tell you. But I should imagine so."
"And do we know anything about her?"
"Not as yet. I knew, of course, that he was attached to some such—ah—poule-de-luxe, as many of our most distinguished clients are. His financial accounts alone showed that. The lady seems to have had a remarkable taste for jewellery. But, as to information about her, that was the next point I wished to bring up." Hunt considered him, drawing a deep breath, before he added: "Tell me, Richard: did you ever hear of a gentleman named Bencolin?"
Curtis had a feeling that his imagination had been not so far out after all.
"You don't mean," he said, "the greatest of all the French detectives? Or was, rather; he resigned during those political rows a couple of years ago. The man is so much of a legend that I've wondered whether he really existed."
"Henri Bencolin," said Hunt, eyeing the ceiling, "is a man after my own heart. I know him well. Do not be deceived by his grave airs and stately calm. I have never known a fellow with a finer taste in limericks. At alcoholic singing, particularly in quartets, he can carry the bass with remarkable effect. Yes, he has retired. I think you will find him far more mellow than the lean and hungry criminal-hunter you have been led to expect—"
"I wonder," mused Hunt. "They tell me that in retirement he is a little—ah—gone to seed, sartorially. I have often thought that his famous white tie and Mephistophelian twirl were careful stage-trappings, which he found useful in his business. In his retirement he does not, thank heaven, grow roses. He spends most of his time fishing and shooting, for he must always catch something. But to business." He cleared his throat. "Bencolin has no longer any connection with the police, but he is in close touch with them. It may be very useful to us—you follow me, Richard?—to learn all we can about Mlle. Rose Klonec. I will give you a letter to deliver to Bencolin. His present address is unknown to me, but if you present your credentials to M. Brille, the present chef de Sûreté, at the Quai des Orfèvres, you will easily obtain it."
Hunt bobbed up behind his desk, a dry little figure with parted hair that looked suspiciously like a wig, and the wrinkles of his face suggesting that he meant to impart advice.
"That is all, Richard. I am depending on you to deal with this matter in a way that will reflect credit on Curtis, Hunt, D'Arcy, and Curtis. As soon as you have seen Mr. Douglas, you will, of course, report fully to me; by telephone, if necessary. Should I consider the position serious enough, it will be incumbent on me to join you. I do not anticipate such a contingency, but I shall hold myself in readiness ... Ah, just one moment, Richard!"
"Yes, sir?" said Curtis, turning at the door.
"I wonder," said Hunt gravely, "whether you have ever heard this one? 'There was a young girl from Hong-Kong—'"
He recited gravely, in the manner of one reading a lesson to a Sunday School. It was not until Curtis had gone on to his own office, controlling himself so as to avoid exploding in the face of Miss Breedon as she came in for dictation, that he realized he had really been admitted to the firm at last.
Excerpted from The Four False Weapons by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1965 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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