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Death at the dolphin, p.1
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       Death at the Dolphin, p.1

           Ngaio Marsh
Death at the Dolphin

  Death at the Dolphin

  Ngaio Marsh

  For Edmund Cork in gratitude and with affection

  Table of Contents

  Cover Page

  Title Page


  Cast of Characters

  Chapter 1 Mr Conducis

  Chapter 2 Mr Greenslade

  Chapter 3 Party

  Chapter 4 Rehearsal

  Chapter 5 Climax

  Chapter 6 Disaster

  Chapter 7 Sunday Morning

  Chapter 8 Sunday Afternoon

  Chapter 9 Knight Rampant

  Chapter 10 Monday

  Chapter 11 The Show Will Go On

  By The Same Author


  About the Publisher

  Cast of Characters

  A clerk

  Peregrine Jay—Playwright and Theatre Director

  Henry Jobbins—Caretaker

  Mr Vassily Conducis

  His Chauffeur

  Mawson—His manservant

  Jeremy Jones—Designer

  Mr Greenslade—Solicitor to Mr Conducis

  An Expert on Historic Costume

  Winter Morris—Manager, Dolphin Theatre

  Marcus Knight—‘Shakespeare’ in Peregrine’s play

  Destiny Meade—‘The Dark Lady’ in Peregrine’s play

  W. Hartly Grove—‘The Rival’ in Peregrine’s play

  Gertrude Bracey—‘Ann Hathaway’ in Peregrine’s play

  Emily Dunne—‘Joan Hart’ in Peregrine’s play

  Charles Random—‘Dr Hall’ in Peregrine’s play

  Trevor Vere—‘Hamnet’ in Peregrine’s play

  Mrs Blewitt—Trevor’s mother

  Hawkins—A Security Officer

  A Police Sergeant

  Divisional-Superintendent Gibson

  PC Grantley

  A Divisional Surgeon

  Superintendent Roderick Alleyn CID

  Inspector Fox CID

  Detective Sergeant Thompson CID

  Detective Sergeant Bailey CID

  Mrs Guzman—An American millionairess


  Mr Conducis

  ‘Dolphin?’ the clerk repeated. ‘Dolphin. Well, yerse. We hold the keys. Were you wanting to view?’

  ‘If I might, I was,’ Peregrine Jay mumbled, wondering why such conversations should always be conducted in the past tense. ‘I mean,’ he added boldly, ‘I did and I still do. I want to view, if you please.’

  The clerk made a little face that might have been a sneer or an occupational tic. He glanced at Peregrine, who supposed his appearance was not glossy enough to make him a likely prospect.

  ‘It is for sale, I believe?’ Peregrine said.

  ‘Oh, it’s for sale, all right.’ The clerk agreed contemptuously. He re-examined some document that he had on his desk.

  ‘May I view?’


  ‘If it’s possible.’

  ‘Well – I don’t know, really, if we’ve anybody free at the moment,’ said the clerk and frowned at the rain streaming dirtily down the windows of his office.

  Peregrine said, ‘Look. The Dolphin is an old theatre. I am a man of the theatre. Here is my card. If you care to telephone my agents or the management of my current production at The Unicorn they will tell you that I am honest, sober and industrious, a bloody good director and playwright and possessed of whatever further attributes may move you to lend me the keys of The Dolphin for an hour. I would like,’ he said, ‘to view it.’

  The clerk’s face became inscrutable. ‘Oh, quite,’ he muttered and edged Peregrine’s card across his desk, looking sideways at it as if it might scuttle. He retired within himself and seemed to arrive at a guarded conclusion.

  ‘Yerse. Well, OK, Mr er. It’s not usually done but we try to oblige.’ He turned to a dirty-white board where keys hung like black tufts on a piece of disreputable ermine.

  ‘Dolphin,’ said the clerk, ‘Aeo, yerse. Here we are.’ He unhooked a bunch of keys and pushed them across the desk. ‘You may find them a bit hard to turn,’ he said. ‘We don’t keep on oiling the locks. There aren’t all that many inquiries.’ He made what seemed to be a kind of joke. ‘It’s quite a time since the blitz,’ he said.

  ‘Quarter of a century,’ said Peregrine, taking the keys.

  ‘That’s right. What a spectacle! I was a kid. Know your way I suppose, Mr – er – Jay?’

  ‘Thank you, yes.’

  ‘Thank you, sir,’ said the clerk suddenly plumping for deference, but establishing at the same time his utter disbelief in Peregrine as a client. ‘Terrible weather. You will return the keys?’

  ‘Indubitably,’ said Peregrine, aping, he knew not why, Mr Robertson Hare.

  He had got as far as the door when the clerk said: ‘Oh, be-the-way, Mr – er – Jay. You will watch how you go. Underfoot. On stage particularly. There was considerable damage.’

  ‘Thank you. I’ll be careful.’

  ‘The hole was covered over but that was some time ago. Like a well,’ the clerk added, worrying his first finger. ‘Something of the sort. Just watch it.’

  ‘I will.’

  ‘I – er – I don’t answer for what you’ll find,’ the clerk said. ‘Tramps get in, you know. They will do it. One died a year or so back.’


  ‘Not that it’s likely to happen twice.’

  ‘I hope not.’

  ‘Well, we couldn’t help it,’ the clerk said crossly. ‘I don’t know how they effect an entrance, really. Broken window or something. You can’t be expected to attend to everything.’

  ‘No,’ Peregrine agreed and let himself out.

  Rain drove up Wharfingers Lane in a slanting wall. It shot off the pavement, pattering against doors and windows and hit Peregrine’s umbrella so hard that he thought it would split. He lowered it in front of him and below its scalloped and beaded margin saw, as if at rise of curtain in a cinema, the Thames, rain-pocked and choppy on its ebb-tide.

  There were not a great many people about. Vans passed him grinding uphill in low gear. The buildings were ambiguous: ware-houses? Wharfingers offices? Farther down he saw the blue lamp of a River Police Station. He passed a doorway with a neat legend: ‘Port of London Authority’ and another with old-fashioned lettering ‘Camperdown and Carboys Rivercraft Company. Demurrage. Wharfage. Inquiries.’

  The lane turned sharply to the left; it now ran parallel with the river. He lifted his umbrella. Up it went, like a curtain, on The Dolphin. At that moment, abruptly, there was no more rain.

  There was even sunshine. It washed thinly across the stagehouse of The Dolphin and picked it out for Peregrine’s avid attention. There it stood: high, square and unbecoming, the object of his greed and deep desire. Intervening buildings hid the rest of the theatre except for the wrought-iron ornament at the top of a tower. He hurried on until, on his left, he came to a pub called The Wharfinger’s Friend and then the bomb site and then, fully displayed, the wounded Dolphin itself.

  On a fine day, Peregrine thought, a hundred years ago, watermen and bargees, ship’s chandlers, business gents, deep-water sailors from foreign parts and riverside riffraff looked up and saw The Dolphin. They saw its flag snapping and admired its caryatids touched up on the ringlets and nipples with tasteful gilt. Mr Adolphus Ruby, your very own Mr Ruby, stood here in Wharfingers Lane with his thumbs in his armholes, his cigar at one angle and his hat at the other and feasted his pop eyes on his very own palace of refined and original entertainment. ‘Oh, Oh!’ thought Peregrine, ‘and here I stand but not, alas, in Mr Ruby’s lacquered high-lows. And the caryatids have the emptiest look in their blank eyes for me.’

  They were still there, though
, two on each side of the portico. They finished at their waists, petering out with grimy discretion in pastrycook’s scrolls. They supported with their sooty heads and arms a lovely wrought-iron balcony and although there were occasional gaps in their plaster foliations they were still in pretty good trim. Peregrine’s doting fancy cleaned the soot from upper surfaces. It restored, too, the elegant sign: supported above the portico by two prancing cetaceous mammals, and regilded its lettering: ‘The Dolphin Theatre’.

  For a minute or two he looked at it from the far side of the lane. The sun shone brightly now. River, shipping and wet roofs reflected it and the cobblestones in front of the theatre began to send up a thin vapour. A sweep of seagulls broke into atmospheric background noises and a barge honked.

  Peregrine crossed the wet little street and entered the portico.

  It was stuck over with old bills including the agents’ notice which had evidently been there for a very long time and was torn and discoloured. ‘This Valuable Commercial Site’, it said.

  ‘In that case,’ Peregrine wondered, ‘why hasn’t it been sold? Why had no forward-looking commercial enterprise snapped up the Valuable Site and sent the Dolphin Theatre crashing about its own ears?’

  There were other moribund bills. ‘Sensational!’ one of them proclaimed but the remainder was gone and it was anybody’s guess what sensation it had once recommended. ‘Go home – ’ was chalked across one of the doors but somebody had rubbed out the rest of the legend and substituted graffiti of a more or less predictable kind. It was all very dismal.

  But as Peregrine approached the doors he found, on the frontage itself high up and well protected, the tatter of a playbill. It was the kind of thing that patrons of the Players Theatre cherish and Kensington Art shops turn into lampshades.


  In response to

  Overwhelming Solicitation!! –

  Mr Adolphus Ruby


  A Return Performa –

  The rest was gone.

  When, Peregrine speculated, could this overwhelming solicitation have moved Mr Ruby? In the eighties? He knew that Mr Ruby had lived to within ten years of the turn of the century and in his heyday had bought, altered, restored and embellished The Dolphin, adding his plaster and jute caryatids, his swags, his supporting marine mammals and cornucopia, his touches of gilt and lolly-pink to the older and more modest elegance of wrought iron and unmolested surfaces. When did he make all these changes? Did he, upon his decline, sell The Dolphin and, if so, to whom? It was reputed to have been in use at the outbreak of the Second World War as a ragdealer’s storehouse.

  Who was the ground landlord now?

  He confronted the main entrance and its great mortice lock for which he had no trouble in selecting the appropriate key. It was big enough to have hung at the girdle of one of Mr Ruby’s very own stage-gaolers. The key went home and engaged but refused to turn. Why had Peregrine not asked the clerk to lend him an oil-can? He struggled for some time and a voice at his back said:

  ‘Got it all on yer own, mate, aincher?’

  Peregrine turned to discover a man wearing a peaked cap like a waterman’s and a shiny blue suit. He was a middle-aged man with a high colour, blue eyes and a look of cheeky equability.

  ‘You want a touch of the old free-in-one,’ he said. He had a gritty hoarseness in his voice. Peregrine gaped at him. ‘Oil, mate. Loobrication,’ the man explained.

  ‘Oh. Yes, indeed, I know I do.’

  ‘What’s the story, anyway? Casing the joint?’

  ‘I want to look at it,’ Peregrine grunted. ‘Ah, damn, I’d better try the stage-door.’

  ‘Let’s take a butcher’s.’

  Peregrine stood back and the man stooped. He tried the key, delicately at first and then with force. ‘Not a hope,’ he wheezed. “Alf a mo’.’

  He walked away, crossed the street and disappeared between two low buildings and down a narrow passageway that seemed to lead to the river.

  ‘Damnation!’ Peregrine thought, ‘he’s taken the key!’

  Two gigantic lorries with canvas-covered loads roared down Wharfingers Lane and past the theatre. The great locked doors shook and rattled and a flake of plaster fell on Peregrine’s hand. ‘It’s dying slowly,’ he thought in a panic. ‘The Dolphin is being shaken to death.’

  When the second lorry had gone by there was the man again with a tin and a feather in one hand and the key in the other. He re-crossed the street and came through the portico.

  ‘I’m very much obliged to you,’ Peregrine said.

  ‘No trouble, yer Royal ‘Ighness,’ said the man. He oiled the lock and after a little manipulation turned the key. ‘Kiss yer ‘and,’ he said. Then he pulled back the knob. The tongue inside the lock shifted with a loud clunk. He pushed the door and it moved a little. ‘Sweet as a nut,’ said the man, and stepped away. ‘Well, dooty calls as the bloke said on ‘is way to the gallers.’

  ‘Wait a bit –’ Peregrine said, ‘you must have a drink on me. Here.’ He pushed three half crowns into the man’s hand.

  ‘Never say no to that one, Mister. Fanks. Jolly good luck.’

  Peregrine longed to open the door but thought the man, who was evidently a curious fellow, might attach himself. He wanted to be alone in The Dolphin.

  ‘Your job’s somewhere round about here?’ he asked.

  ‘Dahn Carboy Stairs. Phipps Bros. Drugs and that. Jobbins is the name. Caretaker, uster be a lighterman but it done no good to me chubes. Well, so long, sir. Hope you give yerself a treat among them spooks. Best of British luck.’

  ‘Goodbye, and thank you.’

  The door opened with a protracted groan and Peregrine entered The Dolphin.


  The windows were unshuttered and though masked by dirt, let enough light into the foyer for him to see it quite distinctly. It was surprisingly big. Two flights of stairs with the prettiest wrought-iron balustrades curved up into darkness. At the back and deep in shadow, passages led off on either side giving entrance no doubt to boxes and orchestra stalls. The pit entrance must be from somewhere outside.

  On Peregrine’s right stood a very rococo box-office, introduced, he felt sure, by Mr Ruby. A brace of consequential plaster putti hovered upside down with fat-faced insouciance above the grille and must have looked in their prime as if they were counting the doorsales. A fibre-plaster bust of Shakespeare on a tortuous pedestal lurked in the shadows. The filthy walls were elegantly panelled and he thought must have originally been painted pink and gilded.

  There was nothing between Peregrine and the topmost ceiling. The circle landing, again with a wrought-iron balustrade, reached less than half-way across the well. He stared up into darkness and fancied he could distinguish a chandelier. The stench was frightful: rats, rot, general dirt and, he thought, an unspeakable aftermath of the hobos that the clerk had talked about. But how lovely it must have been in its early Victorian elegance and even with Mr Ruby’s preposterous additions. And how surprisingly undamaged it seemed to be.

  He turned to the right-hand flight of stairs and found two notices. ‘Dress Circle’ and ‘To the Paris Bar’. The signwriter had added pointing hands with frills round their wrists. Upstairs first, or into the stalls? Up.

  He passed by grimed and flaking panels, noticing the graceful airiness of plaster ornament that separated them. He trailed a finger on the iron balustrade but withdrew it quickly at the thick touch of occulted dust. Here was the circle foyer. The double flight of stairs actually came out on either side of a balcony landing that projected beyond the main landing and formed the roof of a portico over the lower foyer. Flights of three shallow steps led up from three sides of this ‘half-landing’ to the top level. The entire structure was supported by very elegant iron pillars.

  It was much darker up there and he could only just make out the Paris Bar. The shelves were visible but the counter had gone. A nice piece of mahogany it may have been – something to se
ll or steal. Carpet lay underfoot in moth-eaten tatters and the remains of curtains hung before the windows. These must be unbroken because the sound of the world outside was so very faint. Boarded up, perhaps. It was extraordinary how quiet it was, how stale, how stifling, how dead.

  ‘Not a mouse stirring’ he thought and at that moment heard a rapid patter. Something scuttled across his foot. Peregrine was astonished to find himself jolted by a violent shudder. He stamped with both feet and was at once half-stifled by the frightful cloud of dust he raised.

  He approached the Paris Bar. A man without a face came out of the shadows and moved towards him.

  ‘Euh!’ Peregrine said in his throat. He stopped and so did the man. He could not have told how many heart thuds passed before he saw it was himself.

  The bar was backed by a sheet of looking-glass.

  Peregrine had recently given up smoking. If he had now had access to a cigarette he would have devoured it. Instead, he whistled and the sound in that muffled place was so lacking in resonance, so dull, that he fell silent and crossed the foyer to the nearest door into the auditorium. There were two, one on each side of the sunken half-landing. He passed into the circle.

  The first impression was dramatic. He had forgotten about the bomb damage. A long shaft of sunlight from a gap in the roof of the stage-house took him by surprise. It produced the effect of a wartime blitz drawing in charcoal and, like a spotlight, found its mark on the empty stage. There, in a pool of mild sunlight, stood a broken chair still waiting, Peregrine thought, for one of Mr Ruby’s very own actors. Behind the chair lay a black patch that looked as if a paint pot had been upset on the stage. It took Peregrine a moment or two to realize that this must be the hole the clerk had talked about. It was difficult to see it distinctly through the shaft of light.

  Against this one note of brilliance the rest of the house looked black. It was in the classic horseshoe form and must have seated, Peregrine thought, about five hundred. He saw that the chairs had little iron trimmings above their plushy backs and that there were four boxes. A loop of fringe dangled from the top of the proscenium and this was all that could be seen of the curtain.

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