Lord peter views the bod.., p.28
Lord Peter Views the Body, p.28Dorothy L. Sayers
At a quarter before eleven, he rose and went out into the street. He walked briskly, keeping well away from the wall, till he came out into a well-lighted thoroughfare. Here he took a bus, securing the corner seat next the conductor, from which he could see everybody who got on and off. A succession of buses eventually brought him to a respectable residential quarter of Hampstead. Here he alighted and, still keeping well away from the walls, made his way up to the Heath.
The night was moonless, but not altogether black, and, as he crossed a deserted part of the Heath, he observed one or two other dark forms closing in upon him from various directions. He paused in the shelter of a large tree, and adjusted to his face a black velvet mask, which covered him from brow to chin. At its base the number 21 was clearly embroidered in white thread.
At length a slight dip in the ground disclosed one of those agreeable villas which stand, somewhat isolated, among the rural surroundings of the Heath. One of the windows was lighted. As he made his way to the door, other dark figures, masked like himself, pressed forward and surrounded him. He counted six of them.
The foremost man knocked on the door of the solitary house. After a moment, it was opened slightly. The man advanced his head to the opening; there was a murmur, and the door opened wide. The man stepped in, and the door was shut.
When three of the men had entered, Rogers found himself to be the next in turn. He knocked, three times loudly, then twice faintly. The door opened to the extent of two or three inches, and an ear was presented to the chink. Rogers whispered ‘Finality’. The ear was withdrawn, the door opened, and he passed in.
Without any further word of greeting, Number Twenty-one passed into a small room on the left, which was furnished like an office, with a desk, a safe, and a couple of chairs. At the desk sat a massive man in evening dress, with a ledger before him. The new arrival shut the door carefully after him; it clicked to, on a spring lock. Advancing to the desk, he announced, ‘Number Twenty-one, sir,’ and stood respectfully waiting. The big man looked up, showing the number 1 startlingly white on his mask. His eyes, of a curious hard blue, scanned Rogers attentively. At a sign from him, Rogers removed his mask. Having verified his identity with care, the President said, ‘Very well, Number Twenty-one,’ and made an entry in the ledger. The voice was hard and metallic, like his eyes. The close scrutiny from behind the immovable black mask seemed to make Rogers uneasy, he shifted his feet, and his eyes fell. Number One made a sign of dismissal, and Rogers, with a faint sigh as though of relief, replaced his mask and left the room. As he came out, the next comer passed in his place.
The room in which the Society met was a large one, made by knocking the two largest of the first-floor rooms into one. It was furnished in the standardised taste of twentieth-century suburbia and brilliantly lighted. A gramophone in one corner blared out a jazz tune, to which about ten couples of masked men and women were dancing, some in evening dress and others in tweeds and jumpers.
In one corner of the room was an American bar. Rogers went up and asked the masked man in charge for a double whisky. He consumed it slowly, leaning on the bar. The room filled. Presently somebody moved across to the gramophone and stopped it. He looked round. Number One had appeared on the threshold. A tall woman in black stood beside him. The mask, embroidered with a white 2, covered hair and face completely, only her fine bearing and her white arms and bosom and the dark eyes shining through the eye-slits proclaimed her a woman of power and physical attraction.
‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ Number One was standing at the upper end of the room. The woman sat beside him; her eyes were cast down and betrayed nothing, but her hands were clenched on the arms of the chair and her whole figure seemed tensely aware.
‘Ladies and gentlemen. Our numbers are two short tonight.’ The masks moved; eyes were turned, seeking and counting. ‘I need not inform you of the disastrous failure of our plan for securing the plans of the Court-Windlesham helicopter. Our courageous and devoted comrades, Number Fifteen and Number Forty-eight, were betrayed and taken by the police.’
An uneasy murmur arose among the company.
‘It may have occurred to some of you that even the well-known steadfastness of these comrades might give way under examination. There is no cause for alarm. The usual orders have been issued, and I have this evening received the report that their tongues have been effectually silenced. You will, I am sure, be glad to know that these two brave men have been spared the ordeal of so great a temptation to dishonour, and that they will not be called upon to face a public trial and the rigours of a long imprisonment.’
A hiss of intaken breath moved across the assembled members like the wind over a barley-field.
‘Their dependants will be discreetly compensated in the usual manner. I call upon Numbers Twelve and Thirty-four to undertake this agreeable task. They will attend me in my office for their instructions after the meeting. Will the Numbers I have named kindly signify that they are able and willing to perform this duty?’
Two hands were raised in salute. The President continued, looking at his watch:
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please take your partners for the next dance.’
The gramophone struck up again. Rogers turned to a girl near him in a red dress. She nodded, and they slipped into the movement of a fox-trot. The couples gyrated solemnly and in silence. Their shadows were flung against the blinds as they turned and stepped to and fro.
‘What has happened?’ breathed the girl in a whisper, scarcely moving her lips. ‘I’m frightened, aren’t you? I feel as if something awful was going to happen.’
‘It does take one a bit short, the President’s way of doing things,’ agreed Rogers, ‘but it’s safer like that.’
‘Those poor men —’
A dancer, turning and following on their heels, touched Rogers on the shoulder.
‘No talking, please,’ he said. His eyes gleamed sternly; he twirled his partner into the middle of the crowd and was gone. The girl shuddered.
The gramophone stopped. There was a burst of clapping.
The dancers again clustered before the President’s seat.
‘Ladies and gentlemen. You may wonder why this extraordinary meeting has been called. The reason is a serious one. The failure of our recent attempt was no accident. The police were not on the premises that night by chance. We have a traitor among us.’
Partners who had been standing close together fell distrustfully apart. Each member seemed to shrink, as a snail shrinks from the touch of a finger.
‘You will remember the disappointing outcome of the Dinglewood affair,’ went on the President, in his harsh voice. ‘You may recall other smaller matters which have not turned out satisfactorily. All these troubles have been traced to their origin, I am happy to say that our minds can now be easy. The offender has been discovered and will be removed. There will be no more mistakes. The misguided member who introduced the traitor to our Society will be placed in a position where his lack of caution will have no further ill-effects. There is no cause for alarm.’
Every eye roved about the company, searching for the traitor and his unfortunate sponsor. Somewhere beneath the black masks a face must have turned white; somewhere under the stifling velvet there must have been a brow sweating, not with the heat of the dance. But the masks hid everything.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please take your partners for the next dance.’
The gramophone struck into an old and half-forgotten tune: ‘There ain’t nobody loves me.’ The girl in red was claimed by a tall mask in evening dress. A hand laid on Roger’s arm made him start. A small, plump woman in a green jumper slipped a cold hand into his. The dance went on.
When it stopped, amid the usual applause, everyone stood, detached, stiffened in expectation: The President’s voice was raised again.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please behave naturally. This is a dance, not a public meeting.’
Rogers led his partner to a chair and fetched her an ice. A
‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ The endless interval was over. ‘You will no doubt wish to be immediately relieved from suspense. I will name the persons involved. Number Thirty-seven!’
A man sprang up with a fearful, strangled cry.
The wretch choked and gasped.
‘I never — I swear — I never — I’m innocent.’
‘Silence. You have failed in discretion. You will be dealt with. If you have anything to say in defence of your folly, I will hear it later. Sit down.’
Number Thirty-seven sank down upon a chair. He pushed his handkerchief under the mask to wipe his face. Two tall men closed in upon him. The rest fell back, feeling the recoil of humanity from one stricken by mortal disease.
The gramophone struck up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I will now name the traitor. Number Twenty-one, stand forward.’
Rogers stepped forward. The concentrated fear and loathing of forty-eight pairs of eyes burned upon him. The miserable Jukes set up a fresh wail.
‘Oh, my God! Oh! my God!’
‘Silence! Number Twenty-one, take off your mask.’
The traitor pulled the thick covering from his face. The intense hatred of the eyes devoured him.
‘Number Thirty-seven, this man was introduced here by you, under the name of Joseph Rogers, formerly second footman in the service of the Duke of Denver, dismissed for pilfering. Did you take steps to verify that statement?’
‘I did — I did! As God’s my witness, it was all straight. I had him identified by two of the servants. I made enquiries. The tale was straight — I’ll swear it was.’
The President consulted a paper before him, then he looked at his watch again.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, please take your partners …’
Number Twenty-one, his arms twisted behind him and bound, and his wrists handcuffed, stood motionless, while the dance of doom circled about him. The clapping, as it ended, sounded like the clapping of the men and women who sat, thirsty-lipped beneath the guillotine.
‘Number Twenty-one, your name has been given as Joseph Rogers, footman, dismissed for theft. Is that your real name?’
‘What is your name?’
‘Peter Death Bredon Wimsey.’
‘We thought you were dead.’
‘Naturally. You were intended to think so.’
‘What has become of the genuine Joseph Rogers?’
‘He died abroad. I took his place. I may say that no real blame attaches to your people for not having realised who I was. I not only took Rogers’s place; I was Rogers. Even when I was alone, I walked like Rogers, I sat like Rogers, I read Rogers’s books, and wore Rogers’s clothes. In the end, I almost thought Rogers’s thoughts. The only way to keep up a successful impersonation is never to relax.’
‘I see. The robbery of your own flat was arranged?’
‘The robbery of the Dowager Duchess, your mother, was connived at by you?’
‘It was. It was a very ugly tiara — no real loss to anybody with decent taste. May I smoke, by the way?’
‘You may not. Ladies, and gentlemen …’
The dance was like the mechanical jigging of puppets. Limbs jerked, feet faltered. The prisoner watched with an air of critical detachment.
‘Numbers Fifteen, Twenty-two, and Forty-nine. You have watched the prisoner. Has he made any attempts to communicate with anybody?’
‘None.’ Number Twenty-two was the spokesman. ‘His letters and parcels have been opened, his telephone tapped, and his movements followed. His water-pipes have been under observation for Morse signals.’
‘You are sure of what you say?’
‘Prisoner, have you been alone in this adventure? Speak the truth, or things will be made somewhat more unpleasant for you than they might otherwise be.’
‘I have been alone. I have taken no unnecessary risks.’
‘It may be so. It will, however, be as well that steps should be taken to silence the man at Scotland Yard — what is his name? — Parker. Also the prisoner’s manservant, Mervyn Bunter, and possibly also his mother and sister. The brother is a stupid oaf, and not, I think, likely to have been taken into the prisoner’s confidence. A precautionary watch will, I think, meet the necessities of his case.’
The prisoner appeared, for the first time, to be moved.
‘Sir, I assure you that my mother and sister know nothing which could possibly bring danger on the Society.’
‘You should have thought of their situation earlier. Ladies and gentlemen, please take —’
‘No — no!’ Flesh and blood could endure the mockery no longer. ‘No! Finish with him. Get it over. Break up the meeting. It’s dangerous. The police —’
The President glanced round at the crowd. It had a dangerous look about it. He gave way.
‘Very well. Take the prisoner away and silence him. He will receive Number 4 treatment. And be sure you explain it to him carefully first.’
The eyes expressed a wolfish satisfaction. Strong hands gripped Wimsey’s arms.
‘One moment — for God’s sake let me die decently.’
‘You should have thought this over earlier. Take him away. Ladies and gentlemen, be satisfied — he will not die quickly.’
‘Stop! Wait!’ cried Wimsey desperately. ‘I have something to say. I don’t ask for life — only for a quick death. I — I have something to sell.’
‘We make no bargains with traitors.’
‘No — but listen! Do you think I have not thought of this? I am not so mad. I have left a letter.’
‘Ah! now it is coming. A letter. To whom?’
To the police. If I do not return tomorrow —’
The letter will be opened.’
‘Sir,’ broke in Number Fifteen. ‘This is bluff. The prisoner has not sent any letter. He has been strictly watched for many months.’
‘Ah! but listen. I left the letter before I came to Lambeth.’
‘Then it can contain no information of value.’
‘Oh, but it does.’
‘The combination of my safe.’
‘Indeed? Has this man’s safe been searched?’
‘What did it contain?’
‘No information of importance, sir. An outline of our organisation — the name of this house — nothing that cannot be altered and covered before morning.’
‘Did you investigate the inner compartment of the safe?’
There was a pause.
‘You hear what he says,’ snapped the President sharply. ‘Did you find this inner compartment?’
‘There was no inner compartment, sir. He is trying to bluff.’
‘I hate to contradict you,’ said Wimsey, with an effort at his ordinary pleasant tone, ‘but I really think you must have overlooked the inner compartment.’
‘Well,’ said the President, ‘and what do you say is in this inner compartment, if it does exist?’
‘The names of every member of this Society, with their addresses, photographs, and finger-prints.’
The eyes round him now were ugly with fear. Wimsey kept his face steadily turned towards the President.
‘How do you say you have contrived to get this information?’
‘Well, I have been doing a little detective work on my own, you know.’
‘But you have been watched.’
‘True. The finger-prints of my watchers adorn the first page of the collection.’
This statement can be proved?’
‘Certainly. I will prove it. The name of Number Fifty, for example —
A fierce muttering arose. The President silenced it with a gesture.
‘If you mention names here, you will certainly have no hope of mercy. There is a fifth treatment — kept specially for people who mention names. Bring the prisoner to my office. Keep the dance going.’
The President took an automatic from his hip-pocket and faced the tightly fettered prisoner across the desk.
‘Now speak!’ he said,
‘I should put that thing away, if I were you,’ said Wimsey contemptuously. ‘It would be a much pleasanter form of death than treatment Number 5, and I might be tempted to ask for it.’
‘Ingenious,’ said the President, ‘but a little too ingenious. Now, be quick; tell me what you know.’
‘Will you spare me if I tell you?’
‘I make no promises. Be quick.’ Wimsey shrugged his bound and aching shoulders.
‘Certainly. I will tell you what I know. Stop me when you have heard enough.’
He leaned forward and spoke low. Overhead the noise of the gramophone and the shuffling of feet bore witness that the dance was going on. Stray passers-by crossing the Heath noted that the people in the lonely house were making a night of it again.
‘Well,’ said Wimsey, ‘am I to go on?’
From beneath the mask the President’s voice sounded as though he were grimly smiling.
‘My lord,’ he said, ‘your story fills me with regret that you are not, in fact, a member of our Society. Wit, courage, and industry are valuable to an association like ours. I fear I cannot persuade you? No — I supposed not.’
He touched a bell on his desk.
‘Ask the members kindly to proceed to the supper-room,’ he said to the mask who entered.
The ‘supper-room’ was on the ground-floor, shuttered and curtained. Down its centre ran a long, bare table, with chairs set about it.
‘A Barmecide feast, I see,’ said Wimsey pleasantly. It was the first time he had seen this room. At the far end, a trap-door in the floor gaped ominously.
The President took the head of the table.
Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy L. Sayers / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes