Night music, p.19
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       Night Music, p.19

           John Connolly
 

  There was another man seated in the red leather armchair to Quayle’s left. He was somewhere in his twenties, I would have said, and dressed in the manner of a gentleman, but I could see that his shoes, although polished, were worn at the soles, and his suit was just a year out of fashion, with a carnation in his buttonhole to serve as a distraction. Moneyed, then, but struggling: he had enough to pay a man to polish his shoes, but not enough to replace them until the need became pressing. To tell the truth, I disliked him on sight. His eyes were vapid, and his chin was almost one with his neck. Never trust a man who, by his presence in a room with two others, brings down the average number of chins by a third.

  “Welcome, Mr. Soter,” said Quayle. “Let me introduce you to Sebastian Forbes. His uncle, Lionel Maulding, is a client of mine.”

  Forbes rose and shook my hand. His grip was firmer than I had anticipated, although I sensed that he was putting a little more effort into it than usual.

  “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Soter,” he said. He spoke in the manner of some of his kind, as though the statement had rather too many syllables for his liking, and so he had decided to dispense with those deemed surplus to requirements and skate as quickly as possible over the rest.

  “Likewise, sir,” I replied.

  “Mr. Quayle tells me you served with some distinction in the recent conflict,” he said.

  “I served, sir. I can’t say any more than that.”

  “Who were you with?”

  “The Forty-Seventh, sir.”

  “Ah, the Londoners! Stout men. Aubers Ridge, Festubert, Loos, the Somme.”

  “Did you serve, sir?”

  “No, sadly not. My knowledge is based purely on my reading. Too young to enlist, I’m afraid.”

  I looked at him and thought that I had fought alongside men who, had they lived, would still have been younger than he was now, but I said nothing. If he had found a way to avoid the whole bloody mess, then I wasn’t about to begrudge him. I’d been through it, and had I known going in what I was about to face, I’d have run and never looked back. I’d have deserted and left all the bastards to it.

  “You chaps were at High Wood, weren’t you?” continued Forbes.

  “Yes,” I said.

  “Bloody business.”

  “Yes,” I said, again.

  “They relieved Barter of his command after what happened, didn’t they?”

  “Yes, sir, for wanton waste of men.”

  “He was a fool.”

  “Not as big a fool as Pulteney.”

  “Come, come, now. Sir William is a fine soldier.”

  “Sir William is an ignorant man and led better men to their deaths.”

  “I say, now, Jessie Arnott was a friend of my late mother’s. . . .”

  I seemed to recall that Pulteney had married one of the Arnott women. I must have read about it in the society pages, probably just before I lost any appetite for my breakfast.

  Before the conversation could deteriorate further, Quayle gave a dry cough.

  “Please take a seat, Mr. Soter. And you, Mr. Forbes.”

  “I demand an apology,” said Forbes.

  “On what basis?” asked Quayle.

  “This man insulted a hero of the realm, and a friend of my mother’s.”

  “Mr. Soter merely expressed an opinion, and gentlemen must agree to differ on such matters. I’m sure Mr. Soter meant no offense to your mother. Is that not correct, Mr. Soter?”

  Quayle’s tone suggested that it might be wise if I were to make some gesture of amends. I could have refused, of course, but I needed the work, whatever it was. I wasn’t fussy. There was little enough of it to go around, and it seemed that every street corner had its veteran with his trouser legs pinned up over his thighs, the better to show his missing limbs, or a cup held in one hand while the sleeve of his other arm dangled emptily. It was the hatred for ex-soldiers on the part of those who had not fought that I could not understand. They wanted us to disappear. There were no more parades now, no more kisses on the cheek. Soldiers were no more than beggars, and nobody likes a beggar. Perhaps we made them feel guilty by our presence. They might have preferred it had we all died in the mud, and been buried far from England in places we had not even learned to pronounce properly before we perished.

  “I apologize for any offense I might have caused,” I said. “I meant none.”

  Forbes nodded his acceptance. “These are emotional matters, I know,” he said.

  He resumed his seat, and I took mine. Quayle, having refereed the bout to his satisfaction, turned to the matter at hand.

  “Mr. Forbes is concerned about his uncle,” he said. “Apparently, he has not been seen for a number of days, and has left no indication of his whereabouts.”

  “Perhaps he’s taken a holiday,” I said.

  “My uncle is not in the habit of taking holidays,” said his nephew. “He finds comfort in familiar surroundings, and rarely ventures farther than the local village.” He thought for a time. “Actually, I think he went to Bognor once, but he didn’t much care for it.”

  “Ah, Bognor,” intoned Quayle solemnly, as though that explained everything.

  “If you’re worried about his safety, then shouldn’t the police be informed?” I asked.

  Quayle arched an eyebrow, as I knew he would. Like most lawyers, he found the police to be something of an inconvenience to the proper pursuit of legal ends. The police were useful only when he could be certain that they would do his bidding, and no more than that. He tended to worry when they showed signs of independent thought and therefore made it his business to have as little as possible to do with them unless absolutely necessary.

  “Mr. Maulding is a very private man,” said Quayle. “He would not thank us for allowing the police to intrude in his affairs.”

  “He might if he has come to some harm.”

  “What harm could he come to?” asked Forbes. “He hardly leaves the house.”

  “Then why am I here?” I said.

  Quayle sighed in the manner of a man for whom the world holds the capacity for infinite disappointment, the only surprise being the variety of its depths.

  “Mr. Forbes is Mr. Maulding’s only living relative, and the principal beneficiary of his estate should any harm befall him. Naturally, Mr. Forbes hopes that this is not the case in the present circumstance, as he wishes his uncle many more years of happiness and good health.”

  Forbes looked as though he might be about to differ on that point, but common sense prevailed and he provided a grunt of assent.

  “With that in mind,” Quayle continued, “it would obviously contribute greatly to Mr. Forbes’s peace of mind if the well-being of his uncle could be established as quickly as possible, and without recourse to the intervention of the police, a fine force of men though they might be. That is why you are here, Mr. Soter. I have assured Mr. Forbes of your discretion in all matters, and he has been informed of the positive outcomes you have secured for my clients in the past. We should like you to find Mr. Lionel Maulding, and return him to the safe and loving embrace of his family. That is a fair summation of the situation, is it not, Mr. Forbes?”

  Forbes nodded enthusiastically.

  “Safe and loving embrace, absolutely,” he said. “Unless, of course, he’s dead, in which case I’d rather like to know that as well.”

  “Indeed,” said Quayle, after a pause that spoke volumes. “If there’s nothing else, Mr. Forbes, I shall apprise Mr. Soter further of the necessary details and, rest assured, we shall be in touch in due course.”

  Forbes stood. The door opened at that precise moment, and Fawnsley appeared holding a coat, a hat, and a pair of gloves. He could not have been more prompt had he been listening at the keyhole to every word, which he might well have been. He helped Forbes into the coat, passed him the hat and gloves, then stood waiting with reserved impatience for him to leave, like an undertaker faced with a prospective corpse that simply refuses to die.

/>   “In the matter of payment . . .” Forbes began, in the tone of one who finds the whole business of money rather distasteful, especially when he doesn’t have enough of it to go around.

  “I am sure that Mr. Maulding’s funds will cover any expenses,” said Quayle. “I cannot imagine that he would begrudge expenditure incurred on his own behalf.”

  “Very good,” said Forbes, with some relief.

  He paused for a final time when he was at the door, almost causing Fawnsley to walk into his back.

  “Mr. Soter?” he said.

  “Yes, Mr. Forbes?”

  “I’ll look deeper into what you said about Pulteney, and we can talk of it again.”

  “I look forward to that, Mr. Forbes,” I said.

  It didn’t matter, of course. I’d watched forty men being buried in a shell crater at High Wood. I was there. Forbes wasn’t.

  And neither was General Sir Bloody William Pulteney.

  •  •  •

  Quayle asked if I would like some tea. Although he had a drinks cabinet behind his desk, I had never known him to offer anything stronger than Fawnsley’s tea, possibly on the grounds that there wasn’t anything stronger than Fawnsley’s tea.

  “No, thank you.”

  “It’s been a while since we’ve seen you, Mr. Soter. How have you been?”

  “I’ve been passing well, thank you for asking,” I replied, but he had already returned to rearranging the papers on his desk, and the state of my health had ceased to be of any interest to him, relative or otherwise. He licked his right index finger, used it to turn a page, and paused as if a thought had only just struck him, although I well knew that Quayle was not a man to be stricken by sudden thoughts. He planned too far ahead for that.

  “What did you think of Mr. Forbes?” he said.

  “He’s young.”

  “Yes. There’s a lot of it about, it seems.”

  “Not as much as there used to be.”

  “War does tend to have that effect,” said Quayle. “You really ought to learn to hold your tongue, you know.”

  “In front of my betters, you mean?”

  “In front of anyone. For a man who prides himself on his reserve, you have an unfortunate habit of giving rather too much of yourself away when you do choose to speak.”

  “I’ll bear that in mind. I’m grateful to you for pointing it out.”

  “Were you always so sarcastic?”

  “I believe I was, yes, but only in certain company. As you say, it’s been a while since we last met.”

  That almost brought a smile from Quayle, but his facial muscles were unfamiliar with the action, and it collapsed somewhere between a grin and a sneer.

  “Mr. Forbes lives beyond his means,” said Quayle. “His uncle’s bequest represents the best possible opportunity to rectify that situation as quickly as possible.”

  “He could try working for a living.”

  “What makes you think that he hasn’t?”

  “He wasn’t dressed for any job that I could see, unless it involved advertising carnations.”

  Quayle gave another of his weary sighs.

  “His mother left him a small annuity, and I believe that a little money trickles in from investments. Were he wiser, and less profligate, he could probably live comfortably on what he has—well, comfortably for one such as myself, and most certainly for one such as you. But he has a fondness for wagers, and one could probably clothe an entire village with the suits in his wardrobe. If he were to get his hands on his uncle’s money, it would inevitably slip through his fingers like sand, and he would find himself in a similar situation to the one he is in now, albeit with a few more suits to his name.”

  “Do you suspect him of doing away with the old man, and covering his tracks by coming to you?”

  “You are very blunt, Mr. Soter.”

  “I say what others think, especially in the confines of a Chancery chamber.”

  Quayle, who couldn’t hold a shiny new guinea in his hand without seeking the tarnish upon it, or look upon a beautiful woman without picturing the hag that she would become, acknowledged the truth of what I had said with a gentle inclination of his head.

  “In answer to your question, no, I don’t believe that Forbes has done his uncle some injury. He’s not the kind, and had he commissioned someone to act on his behalf, then I would know about it. But there is a mystery here: Lionel Maulding is among the most private of men and begrudges any time spent away from his home. He comes to London to discuss business once a year, and even that is a great chore for him. I make sure that there are adequate funds in his accounts to meet his needs, and I look after his investments in order that this may continue to be the case.”

  Look after them, I thought, and charge a fat fee and a fine commission in the process. Now we came to it. If Maulding were dead, then his nephew would be on that money as soon as the corpse was identified. It would vanish in fineries and fripperies, and Quayle’s income would be diminished accordingly. Quayle didn’t look like he spent much, but he was fond of coin, and didn’t relish the thought of anyone reducing the flow of it into his purse.

  “What do you want me to do?” I asked.

  Quayle slid a manila folder across his desk.

  “Find him. All the information that you’ll need is here, along with a photograph of Maulding. I’ll pay your usual fee plus any expenses, and there’ll be a bonus in it if you can close this business quickly. Fawnsley will advance you a week’s pay and some money for your pocket. Naturally, you’ll provide receipts.”

  “Naturally.”

  “There’s an inn at Maidensmere, which is the nearest village to Maulding’s place, although I hear that his house has enough rooms to accommodate a battalion. If you choose to stay there, the housekeeper will make up a bed for you. She doesn’t live in the house, but arrives first thing in the morning and departs after dinner, or she did while Maulding was still in residence. It was she who raised the alarm. She’ll look after you, and it might save us a shilling or two if you stayed elsewhere than at the inn. Look through Maulding’s papers. Find out if there are any unusual patterns of expenditure. Examine his correspondence. I trust you. I know that you’ll keep your mouth shut, unless someone raises the issue of errant lieutenant generals.”

  I stood.

  “And what if I discover that something has happened to him after all?” I asked. “What if he’s dead?”

  “Then find a resurrectionist,” said Quayle, “because I want Lionel Maulding brought back alive.”

  II

  Maidensmere lay close to the eastern extreme of the Norfolk Broads, an area of about 120 square miles, much of it consisting of navigable waterways, both rivers and lakes, or “broads” in the local parlance. The village was equidistant from the towns of West Somerton and Caister-on-Sea and close to Ormesby Broad, but by the time I arrived it was late in the evening, and the waters were only patches of silver in the moonlight. There was no one to meet me at the station, and I spent some of Quayle’s money on the relative luxury of a night at the Maidensmere Inn. As Quayle had indicated, a room was available for me at Bromdun Hall, Maulding’s home, but I had decided to wait until the morning before taking up residence there. I ate a good meal of roast lamb and allowed myself an ale or two before bed, but I did so as much for the company as the taste of the beer. For a man in my line of work, there is much to be learned of a new place by talking a little, and listening more, and Maidensmere was small enough for a stranger to be of passing interest to the locals.

  When I was asked my business in Maidensmere, as I inevitably was, I told the truth, more or less: I was there to do some work on behalf of Lionel Maulding, and I would be staying at Bromdun Hall until that work was completed. News of Maulding’s disappearance did not appear to have circulated as yet, a testimony to the loyalty of his housekeeper, Mrs. Gissing, and Maulding’s solitary ways. It appeared that Maulding was rarely seen in the village and was regarded, at worst, as harmlessly
eccentric by his neighbors. But then, this was the old kingdom of East Anglia, and had always regarded itself as somewhat different from the rest of England. There was a tolerance for separateness, for otherness. If Lionel Maulding wanted to maintain a private existence, then there were many others like him in these parts, sharing his outlook if not his wealth. I saw no meaningful glances exchanged at the mention of his name, and nobody skulked away into the night, his features clouded with guilt. Such giveaways were the stuff of the Sexton Blake stories in the Union Jack, which was why you only had to pay tuppence for them. The real world was gray with complexity.

  There was only one reference to Maulding that I failed to understand, although it amused the assembled locals.

  “You a bookkeeper, then?” asked the landlord, all muttonchop whiskers and red-faced good cheer, when I told him of my purpose. He tipped the wink to his audience. “A bookkeeper, aye, lads?”

  They all laughed, and then laughed the harder when it was clear that I did not understand the reference.

  “You’ll see, sir,” said the landlord. “No harm meant, but you’ll see.”

  And off he went to call time, and off I went to my bed.

  I slept little that night, which made it no different from any other. I could not recall the last time I had slept soundly from darkness until dawn. I liked to think that I had learned to survive on less rest than others needed, but surviving and living were not the same. It was only shortly before sunrise that I managed at last to snatch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. I dozed through breakfast, but the landlord’s wife had set aside some ham and eggs for me, kept warm over a pot of boiling water that she then used to make tea. She talked as I ate, and I was content to listen. She was much younger than her husband and had lost a brother at the Somme. Someday, she said, she hoped to visit his grave. She asked me what the countryside looked like over there.

  “It wasn’t much to see when I left it,” I said, “but I expect that the grass has grown back now, and there are flowers in the meadows. Perhaps some trees have survived. I don’t know. But it won’t be the same as it was before, not for anyone.”

 

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