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       The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, p.1

         Part #4 of Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers
 
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The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club


  The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

  Dorothy L. Sayers

  www.hodder.co.uk

  First published in Great Britain in 1928 by Ernest Benn

  First published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1968

  An Hachette Livre UK Company

  Introduction © Susan Elizabeth George 2003

  The right of Dorothy L. Sayers to be identified as the Author

  of the Work has been asserted in accordance with the

  Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,

  stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any

  means without the prior written permission of the publisher,

  nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other

  than that in which it is published and without a similar

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  All characters in this publication are fictitious

  and any resemblance to real persons,

  living or dead, is purely coincidental.

  A CIP catalogue record for this title

  is available from the British Library

  Epub ISBN 9781848943841

  Book ISBN 9780450016301

  Hodder & Stoughton

  An Hachette Livre UK Company

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  www.hodder.co.uk

  INTRODUCTION

  I came to the wonderful detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers in a way that would probably make that distinguished novelist spin in her grave. Years ago, actor Ian Carmichael starred in the film productions of a good chunk of them, which I eventually saw on my public television station in Huntington Beach, California. I recall the host of the show reciting the impressive, salient details of Sayers’ life and career – early female graduate of Oxford, translator of Dante, among other things – and I was much impressed. But I was even more impressed with her delightful sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and I soon sought out her novels.

  Because I had never been – and still am not today – a great reader of detective fiction, I had not heard of this marvellous character. I quickly became swept up in everything about him: from his foppish use of language to his family relations. In very short order, I found myself thoroughly attached to Wimsey, to his calm and omnipresent manservant Bunter, to the Dowager Duchess of Denver (was ever there a more deliciously alliterative title?), to the stuffy Duke and the unbearable Duchess of Denver, to Viscount St. George, to Charles Parker, to Lady Mary. . . . In Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels, I found the sort of main character I loved when I turned to fiction: someone with a ‘real’ life, someone who wasn’t just a hero who conveniently had no relations to mess up the workings of the novelist’s plot.

  Dorothy L. Sayers, as I discovered, had much to teach me both as a reader and as a future novelist. While many detective novelists from the Golden Age of mystery kept their plots pared down to the requisite crime, suspects, clues, and red herrings, Sayers did not limit herself to so limited a canvas in her work. She saw the crime and its ensuing investigation as merely the framework for a much larger story, the skeleton – if you will – upon which she could hang the muscles, organs, blood vessels and physical features of a much larger tale. She wrote what I like to call the tapestry novel, a book in which the setting is realised (from Oxford, to the dramatic coast of Devon, to the flat bleakness of the Fens), in which throughout both the plot and the subplots the characters serve functions surpassing that of mere actors on the stage of the criminal investigation, in which themes are explored, in which life and literary symbols are used, in which allusions to other literature abound. Sayers, in short, did what I call ‘taking no prisoners’ in her approach to the detective novel. She did not write down to her readers; rather, she assumed that her readers would rise to her expectations of them.

  I found in her novels a richness that I had not previously seen in detective fiction. I became absorbed in the careful application of detail that characterized her plots: whether she was educating me about bell ringing in The Nine Tailors, about the unusual uses of arsenic in Strong Poison, about the beauties of architectural Oxford in Gaudy Night. She wrote about everything from cryptology to vinology, making unforgettable that madcap period between wars that marked the death of an overt class system and heralded the beginning of an insidious one.

  What continues to be remarkable about Sayers’ work, however, is her willingness to explore the human condition. The passions felt by characters created eighty years ago are as real today as they were then. The motives behind people’s behavior are no more complex now than they were in 1923 when Lord Peter Wimsey took his first public bow. Times have changed, rendering Sayers’ England in so many ways unrecognizable to today’s reader. But one of the true pleasures inherent to picking up a Sayers novel now is to see how the times in which we live alter our perceptions of the world around us, while doing nothing at all to alter the core of our humanity.

  When I first began my own career as a crime novelist, I told people that I would rest content if my name was ever mentioned positively in the same sentence as that of Dorothy L. Sayers. I’m pleased to say that that occurred with the publication of my first novel. If I ever come close to offering the reader the details and delights that Sayers offered in her Wimsey novels, I shall consider myself a success indeed.

  The reissuing of a Sayers novel is an event, to be sure. As successive generations of readers welcome her into their lives, they embark upon an unforgettable journey with an even more unforgettable companion. In time of dire and immediate trouble, one might well call upon a Sherlock Holmes for a quick solution to one’s trials. But for the balm that reassures one about surviving the vicissitudes of life, one could do no better than to anchor onto a Lord Peter Wimsey.

  Elizabeth George

  Huntington Beach, California

  May 27, 2003

  1

  OLD MOSSY-FACE

  ‘What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this Morgue?’ demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside the Evening Banner with the air of a man released from an irksome duty.

  ‘Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,’ retorted Wimsey amiably. ‘Funeral Parlour at the very least. Look at the marble. Look at the furnishings. Look at the palms and the chaste bronze nude in the corner.’

  ‘Yes, and look at the corpses. Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know – “Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.” Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa – dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil! Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days. I wish to God Jerry had put me out with the rest of ’em. What’s the good of coming through for this sort of thing? What’ll you have?’

  ‘Dry Martini,’ said Wimsey. ‘And you? Two dry Martinis, Fred, please. Cheer up. All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it don’t do to say so. They’d hoof me out of the Club if I raised my voice beyond a whisper.’

  ‘They’d do that anyway, whatever you were saying,’ said Fentiman gloomily. ‘What are you doing here?’

  ‘Waitin’ for Colonel Marchbanks,’ said Wimsey. ‘Bungho!’

  ‘Dining with him?’

  ‘Yes.’

  Fentiman nodded quietly. He knew that young Marchbanks had been killed at Hi
ll 60, and that the Colonel was wont to give a small, informal dinner on Armistice night to his son’s intimate friends.

  ‘I don’t mind old Marchbanks,’ he said, after a pause. ‘He’s a dear old boy.’

  Wimsey assented.

  ‘And how are things going with you?’ he asked.

  ‘Oh, rotten as usual. Tummy all wrong and no money. What’s the damn good of it, Wimsey? A man goes and fights for his country, gets his inside gassed out, and loses his job, and all they give him is the privilege of marching past the Cenotaph once a year and paying four shillings in the pound income tax. Sheila’s queer, too – overwork, poor girl. It’s pretty damnable for a man to have to live on his wife’s earnings, isn’t it? I can’t help it, Wimsey. I go sick and have to chuck jobs up. Money – I never thought of money before the War, but I swear nowadays I’d commit any damned crime to get hold of a decent income.’

  Fentiman’s voice had risen in nervous excitement. A shocked veteran, till then invisible in a neighbouring armchair, poked out a lean head like a tortoise and said ‘Sh!’ viperishly.

  ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that,’ said Wimsey lightly. ‘Crime’s a skilled occupation, y’know. Even a comparative imbecile like myself can play the giddy sleuth on the amateur Moriarty. If you’re thinkin’ of puttin’ on a false moustache and lammin’ a millionaire on the head, don’t do it. That disgustin’ habit you have of smoking cigarettes down to the last millimetre would betray you anywhere. I’d only have to come on with a magnifyin’ glass and a pair of callipers to say “The criminal is my dear old friend George Fentiman. Arrest that man!” You might not think it, but I am ready to sacrifice my nearest and dearest in order to curry favour with the police and get a par. in the papers.’

  Fentiman laughed, and ground out the offending cigarette stub on the nearest ashtray.

  ‘I wonder anybody cares to know you,’ he said. The strain and bitterness had left his voice and he sounded merely amused.

  ‘They wouldn’t,’ said Wimsey, ‘only they think I’m too well-off to have any brains. It’s like hearing that the Earl of Somewhere is taking a leading part in a play. Everybody takes it for granted he must act rottenly. I’ll tell you my secret. All my criminological investigations are done for me by a ‘ghost’ at three pounds a week, while I get the head-lines and frivol with well-known journalists at the Savoy.’

  ‘I find you refreshing, Wimsey,’ said Fentiman languidly. ‘You’re not in the least witty, but you have a kind of obvious facetiousness which reminds me of the less exacting class of music-hall.’

  ‘It’s the self-defence of the first-class mind against the superior person,’ said Wimsey. ‘But, look here, I’m sorry to hear about Sheila. I don’t want to be offensive, old man, but why don’t you let me—?’

  ‘Damned good of you,’ said Fentiman, ‘but I don’t care to. There’s honestly not the faintest chance I could ever pay you, and I haven’t quite got to the point yet—’

  ‘Here’s Colonel Marchbanks,’ broke in Wimsey, ‘we’ll talk about it another time. Good evening, Colonel.’

  ‘Evening, Peter, Evening, Fentiman. Beautiful day it’s been. No – no cocktails, thanks, I’ll stick to whisky. So sorry to keep you waiting like this, but I was having a yarn with poor old Grainger upstairs. He’s in a baddish way, I’m afraid. Between you and me, Penberthy doesn’t think he’ll last out the winter. Very sound man, Penberthy – wonderful, really, that he’s kept the old man going so long with his lungs in that frail state. Ah, well! it’s what we must all come to. Dear me, there’s your grandfather, Fentiman. He’s another of Penberthy’s miracles. He must be ninety, if he’s a day. Will you excuse me for a moment? I must just go and speak to him.’

  Wimsey’s eyes followed the alert, elderly figure as it crossed the spacious smoking-room, pausing now and again to exchange greetings with a fellow-member of the Bellona Club. Drawn close to the huge fireplace stood a great chair with ears after the Victorian pattern. A pair of spindle shanks with neatly-buttoned shoes propped on a footstool was all that was visible of General Fentiman.

  ‘Queer, isn’t it,’ muttered his grandson, ‘to think that for Old Mossy-face the Crimea is still the War, and the Boer business found him too old to go out. He was given his commission at seventeen, you know – was wounded at Majuba—’

  He broke off. Wimsey was not paying attention. He was still watching Colonel Marchbanks.

  The Colonel came back to them, walking very quietly and precisely. Wimsey rose and went to meet him.

  ‘I say, Peter,’ said the Colonel, his kind face gravely troubled, ‘just come over here a moment. I’m afraid something rather unpleasant has happened.’

  Fentiman looked round, and something in their manner made him get up and follow them over to the fire.

  Wimsey bent down over General Fentiman and drew the Morning Post gently away from the gnarled old hands, which lay clasped over the thin chest. He touched the shoulder – put his hand under the white head huddled against the side of the chair. The Colonel watched him anxiously. Then, with a quick jerk, Wimsey lifted the quiet figure. It came up all of a piece, stiff as a wooden doll.

  Fentiman laughed. Peal after hysterical peal shook his throat. All round the room, scandalised Bellonians creaked to their gouty feet, shocked by the unmannerly noise.

  ‘Take him away!’ said Fentiman, ‘take him away. He’s been dead two days! So are you! So am I! We’re all dead and we never noticed it!’

  2

  THE QUEEN IS OUT

  It is doubtful which occurrence was more disagreeable to the senior members of the Bellona Club – the grotesque death of General Fentiman in their midst or the indecent neurasthenia of his grandson. Only the younger men felt no sense of outrage; they knew too much. Dick Challoner – known to his intimates as Tin-Tummy Challoner, owing to the fact that he had been fitted with a spare part after the second battle of the Somme – took the gasping Fentiman away into the deserted library for a stiffener. The Club Secretary hurried in, in his dress-shirt and trousers, the half-dried lather still clinging to his jaws. After one glance he sent an agitated waiter to see if Dr Penberthy was still in the Club. Colonel Marchbanks laid a large silk handkerchief reverently over the rigid face in the armchair and remained quietly standing. A little circle formed about the edge of the hearth-rug, not quite certain what to do. From time to time it was swelled by fresh arrivals, whom the news had greeted in the hall as they wandered in. A little group appeared from the bar. ‘What, old Fentiman?’ they said. ‘Good God, you don’t say so. Poor old blighter. Heart gone at last, I suppose’; and they extinguished cigars and cigarettes, and stood by, not liking to go away again.

  Dr Penberthy was just changing for dinner. He came down hurriedly, caught just as he was going out to an Armistice dinner, his silk hat tilted to the back of his head, his coat and muffler pushed loosely open. He was a thin, dark man with the abrupt manner which distinguishes the Army Surgeon from the West End practitioner. The group by the fire made way for him, except Wimsey, who hung rather foolishly upon the big elbow-chair, gazing in a helpless way at the body.

  Penberthy ran practised hands quickly over neck, wrists and knee joints.

  ‘Dead several hours,’ he pronounced sharply. ‘Rigor well established – beginning to pass off.’ He moved the dead man’s left leg in illustration; it swung loose at the knee. ‘I’ve been expecting this. Heart very weak. Might happen any moment. Anyone spoken to him today?’

  He glanced round interrogatively.

  ‘I saw him here after lunch,’ volunteered somebody. ‘I didn’t speak.’

  ‘I thought he was asleep,’ said another.

  Nobody remembered speaking to him. They were so used to old General Fentiman, slumbering by the fire.

  ‘Ah, well,’ said the doctor. ‘What’s the time? Seven?’ He seemed to make a rapid calculation. ‘Say five hours for rigor to set in – must have taken place very rapidly – he probably came in at his usual time, sat down and died straight away.


  ‘He always walked from Dover Street,’ put in an elderly man. ‘I told him it was too great an exertion at his age. You’ve heard me say so, Ormsby.’

  ‘Yes, yes, quite,’ said the purple-faced Ormsby. ‘Dear me, just so.’

  ‘Well, there’s nothing to be done,’ said the doctor. ‘Died in his sleep. Is there an empty bedroom we can take him to, Culyer?’

  ‘Yes, certainly,’ said the Secretary. ‘James, fetch the key of number sixteen from my office and tell them to put the bed in order. I suppose, eh, doctor? – when the rigor passes off we shall be able to – eh?’

  ‘Oh, yes, you’ll be able to do everything that’s required. I’ll send the proper people in to lay him out for you. Somebody had better let his people know – only they’d better not show up till we can get him more presentable.’

  ‘Captain Fentiman knows already,’ said Colonel Marchbanks. ‘And Major Fentiman is staying in the Club – he’ll probably be in before long. Then there’s a sister, I think.’

  ‘Yes, old Lady Dormer,’ said Penberthy, ‘she lives round in Portman Square. They haven’t been on speaking terms for years. Still, she’ll have to know.’

  ‘I’ll ring them up,’ said the Colonel. ‘We can’t leave it to Captain Fentiman, he’s in no fit state to be worried, poor fellow. You’ll have to have a look at him, doctor, when you’ve finished here. An attack of the old trouble – nerves, you know.’

  ‘All right. Ah! is the room ready, Culyer? Then we’ll move him. Will somebody take his shoulders – no, not you, Culyer’ (for the Secretary had only one sound arm), ‘Lord Peter, yes, thank you – lift carefully.’

  Wimsey put his long, strong hands under the stiff arms; the doctor gathered up the legs; they moved away. They looked like a dreadful little Guy Fawkes procession, with that humped and unreverend manikin bobbing and swaying between them.

 
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