Vintage murder, p.1
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       Vintage Murder, p.1

           Ngaio Marsh
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Vintage Murder



  Ngaio Marsh



  Although I agree with those critics who condemn the building of imaginary towns in actual countries I must confess that there is no Middleton in the North Island of New Zealand, nor is “Middleton” a pseudonym for any actual city. The largest town in New Zealand is no bigger than, let us say, Southampton. If I had taken the Dacres Comedy Company to Auckland or Wellington, Messrs. Wade, Packer, and Cass, to say nothing of Dr. Rangi Te Pokiha, might have been mistaken for portraits or caricatures of actual persons. By building Middleton in the open country somewhere south of Ohakune, I avoid this possibility, and, with a clear conscience, can make the usual statement that:

  All the characters in this story are purely imaginary and bear no relation to any actual person.

  Cast of Characters (in the order of their appearance)

  Roderick Alleyn Of the Criminal Investigation Department,

  Scotland Yard.

  Of the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company

  Susan Max, Character Woman.

  Hailey Hambledon, Leading Man.

  Courtney Broadhead, Second Juvenile.

  St. John Ackroyd, Comedian.

  Carolyn Dacres, Leading Lady.

  Alfred Meyer, Her Husband: Proprietor and Managing

  Director of Incorporated Playhouses Ltd.

  Valerie Gaynes, A Beginner.

  George Mason, Meyer’s partner: Business Manager,

  Incorporated Playhouses Ltd.

  Ted Gascoigne, Stage Manager.

  Francis Liversidge, First Juvenile.

  Brandon Vernon, Character Man.

  Of the Stage Staff

  Fred, Head Mechanist.

  Bert, Stage-hand.

  Bob Parsons, A dresser.

  Gordon Palmer, A bear-cub.

  Geoffrey Weston, His leader.

  Dr. Rangi Te Pokiha, A Maori physician.

  Of the New Zealand Police Force

  Detective-Inspector Wade

  Detective-Sergeant Packer

  Detective-Sergeant Cass

  Superintendent Nixon

  Singleton, Stage doorkeeper at the Royal.


  Prologue in a Train

  THE CLOP AND roar of the train was an uneasy element somewhere at the back of the tall man’s dreams. It would die away—die away and fantastic hurrying faces come up to claim his attention. He would think “I am sure I am asleep. This is certainly a dream.” Then came a jolt as they roared, with a sudden increase of racket, over a bridge and through a cutting. The fantastic faces disappeared. He was cold and stiff. For the hundredth time he opened his eyes to see the dim carriage-lamps and the rows of faces with their murky high-lights and cadaverous shadows.

  “Strange company I’ve got into,” he thought.

  Opposite him was the leading man, large, kindly, swaying slightly with the movement of the long narrow-gauge carriage, politely resigned to discomfort. The bundle of rugs in the next seat to the tall man was Miss Susan Max, the character woman. An old trouper, Susan, with years of jolting night journeys behind her, first in this country, then Australia, and then up and down the provinces in England, until finally she made a comfortable niche for herself with Incorporated Playhouses in the West End. Twenty years ago she had joined an English touring company in Wellington. Now, for the first time, she revisited New Zealand. She stared, with unblinking eyes, at the dim reflections in the window-pane. The opposite seat to Susan’s was empty. In the next block George Mason, the manager, a dyspeptic, resigned-looking man, played an endless game of two-handed whist with Ted Gascoigne, the stage-manager.

  And there, nodding like a mandarin beside old Brandon Vernon, was little Ackroyd, the comedian, whose ill-temper was so much at variance with his funny face. Sitting in front of Mason, a pale young man fidgeted restlessly in his chair. This was Courtney Broadhead. “Something the matter with that youth,” thought the tall man. “Ever since Panama—” He caught the boy’s eye and looked beyond him to where Mr. Francis Liversidge, so much too beautifully dressed, allowed Miss Valerie Gaynes to adore him. Beyond them again to the far end of the long carriage were dim faces and huddled figures. The Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company on tour in New Zealand.

  He felt very much an outsider. There was something about these people that gave them a united front. Their very manner in this night train, rattling and roaring through a strange country, was different from the manner of other travellers. Dozing a little, he saw them in more antiquated trains, in stagecoaches, in wagons, afoot, wearing strange garments, carrying bundles, but always together. There they were, their heads bobbing in unison, going back and back.

  A violent jerk woke him. The train had slowed down. He wiped the misty window-pane, shaded his eyes, and tried to look out into this new country. The moon had risen. He saw arching hills, stumps of burnt trees, some misty white flowering scrub, and a lonely road. It was very remote and strange. Away in front, the engine whistled. Trees, hills and road slid sideways and were gone. Three lamps travelled across the window-pane. They were off again.

  He turned to see old Susan dab at her eyes with her handkerchief. She gave him a deprecatory smile.

  “Those white trees are manuka bushes,” she said. “They bloom at this time of the year. I had forgotten.”

  There was a long silence. He looked from one dimly-lit slumping figure to another. At last he became aware of Hambledon’s gaze, fixed on himself.

  “Do you find us very queer cattle?” said Hambledon, with his air of secret enjoyment.

  “Why do you ask that?” said the tall man quickly.

  “I noticed you looking at us and wondered what were your thoughts. Do you think us queer cattle?”

  In order not to disturb Susan Max and to make himself heard above the racket of the train, he bent forward. So did the tall man. With their heads together under the murky lamp, they looked like conspirators.

  “That would be an ungracious thought,” said the tall man, “after your kindness.”

  “Our kindness? Oh, you mean George Mason’s offer of a seat in our carriage?”

  “Yes. The alternative was a back-to-the-engine pew by a swinging door, among commercial travellers, and next to a lavatory.”

  Hambledon laughed silently.

  “Ah well,” he said, “even queer cattle may be preferable to all that.”

  “But I didn’t say I thought—”

  “If you had it would not have been very strange. Actors are a rum lot.”

  “The last man I heard say that was an actor—and a murderer,” said the tall man.

  “Really?” Hambledon raised his head. “You don’t by any chance mean Felix Gardener?”

  “I do. How did you guess—?”

  “Now I know who you are. Of course! How stupid of me! I have seen your photograph any number of times in the papers. It’s been worrying me.”

  His companion looked at Susan Max. Her three chins were packed snugly down into her collar and her eyes were closed. Her whole person jogged rhythmically with the motion of the train.

  “She knew me,” he said, “but I asked her not to give me away. I’m on a holiday.”

  “I should have guessed from your name, of course. How inadequate one’s memory is. And without your—your rank—”

  “Exactly. They spelt me wrongly in the passenger list.”

  “Well, this is very interesting. I shan’t give you away.”

  “Thank you. And at any rate we part company in Middleton. I’m staying for a few nights to see your show and look round, and then I go on to the South Island.”

  “We may meet again,” said Hambledon.

  “I hope so,
said his companion cordially.

  They smiled tentatively at each other, and after an uncertain pause leant back again in their seats.

  The train roared through a cutting and gathered speed. “Rackety-plan, rackety-plan,” it said, faster and faster, as though out of patience with its journey. The guard came through and turned down the lamps. Now the white faces of the travellers looked more cadaverous than ever. The carriage was filled with tobacco smoke. Everything felt grimy and stale. The shrill laughter of Miss Valerie Gaynes, in ecstasy over a witticism of Mr. Liversidge’s, rose above the din. She stood up, a little dishevelled in her expensive fur coat, and began to walk down the carriage. She swayed, clutched the backs of seats, stumbled and fell half across George Mason’s knees. He gave her a disinterested squeeze, and made a knowing grimace at Gascoigne who said something about: “If you will go native.” Miss Gaynes yelped and got up. As she passed Hambledon and the tall man she paused and said:

  “I’m going to my sleeper. They call it ‘de luxe.’ My God, what a train!”

  She staggered on. When she opened the door the iron clamour of their progress filled the carriage. Cold night air rushed in from outside bringing a taint of acrid smoke. She struggled with the door, trying to shut it behind her. They could see her through the glass panel, leaning against the wind. Hambledon got up and slammed the door and she disappeared.

  “Have you taken a sleeper?” asked the tall man.

  “No,” said Hambledon. “I should not sleep and I should probably be sick.”

  “That’s how I feel about it, too.”

  “Carolyn and Meyer have gone to theirs. They are the only other members of the company who have risked it. That young woman has just got to be expensive. Valerie, I mean.”

  “I noticed that in the ship. Who is she? Any relation of old Pomfret Gaynes, the shipping man?”

  “Daughter.” Hambledon leant forward again. “Academy of Dramatic Art, Lord knows how big an allowance, an insatiable desire for the footlights and adores the word ‘actress’ on her passport.”

  “Is she a good actress?”


  “Then how—?”

  “Pomfret,” said Hambledon, “and push.”

  “It seems a little unjust in an overcrowded profession.”

  “That’s how it goes,” said Hambledon with a shrug. “The whole business is riddled with preferment nowadays. It’s just one of those things.”

  Susan Max’s head lolled to one side. Hambledon took her travelling cushion and slipped it between her cheek and the wall. She was fast asleep.

  “There’s your real honest-to-God actress,” he said, leaning forward again. “Her father was an actor-manager in Australia and started life as a child-performer in his father’s stock company. Susan has trouped for forty-five years. It’s in her blood. She can play anything from grande dame to trollop, and play it well.”

  “What about Miss Dacres? Or should I say Mrs. Meyer? I never know with married stars.”

  ‘She’s Carolyn Dacres all the time. Except in hotel registers, of course. Carolyn is a great actress. Please don’t think I’m using the word ‘great’ carelessly. She is a great actress. Her father was a country parson, but there’s a streak of the stage in her mother’s family, I believe. Carolyn joined a touring company when she was seventeen. She was up and down the provinces for eight years before she got her chance in London. Then she never looked back.” Hambledon paused and glanced apologetically at his companion. “In a moment you will accuse me of talking shop.”

  “Why not? I like people to talk shop. I can never understand the prejudice against it.”

  “You don’t do it, I notice.”

  The tall man raised one eyebrow.

  “I’m on a holiday. When did Miss Dacres marry Mr. Alfred Meyer?”

  “About ten years ago,” said Hambledon, shortly. He turned in his seat and looked down the carriage. The Carolyn Dacres Company had settled down for the night. George Mason and Gascoigne had given up their game of two-handed whist and had drawn their rugs up to their chins. The comedian had spread a sheet of newspaper over his head. Young Courtney Broadhead was awake, but Mr. Liversidge’s mouth was open and those rolls of flesh, so well disciplined by day, were now subtly predominant. Except for Broadhead they were all asleep. Hambledon looked at his watch.

  “It’s midnight,” he said.

  Midnight. Outside their hurrying windows this strange country slept. Farm houses, lonely in the moonlight, sheep asleep or tearing with quick jerks at the short grass, those arching hills that ran in curves across the window-panes, and the white flowering trees that made old Susan dab her eyes. They were all there, outside, but remote from the bucketing train with its commercial travellers, its tourists, and its actors.

  “The fascination of a train journey,” thought the tall man, “lies in this remoteness of the country outside, and in the realisation that it is so close. At any station one may break the spell of the train and set foot on the earth. But as long as one stays in the train, the outside is a dream country. A dream country.” He closed his eyes again and presently was fast asleep and troubled by long dreams that were half broken by a sense of discomfort. When he woke again he felt cold and stiff. Hambledon, he saw, was still awake.

  Their carriage seemed to be continually turning. His mind made a picture of a corkscrew with a gnat-sized train twisting industriously. He looked at his watch.

  “Good Lord,” he said. “It’s ten past two. I shall stay awake. It’s a mistake to sleep in these chairs.”

  “Ten past two,” said Hambledon. “The time for indiscreet conversation. Are you sure you do not want to go to sleep?”

  “Quite sure. What were we speaking of before I dozed off. Miss Dacres?”

  “Yes. You asked about her marriage. It is difficult even to guess why she married Alfred Meyer. Not because he is the big noise in Incorporated Playhouses. Carolyn had no need of that sort of pull. She had arrived. Perhaps she married him because he was so essentially commonplace. As a kind of set-off to her own temperament. She has the true artistic temperament.”

  The tall man winced. Hambledon had made use of a phrase that he detested.

  “Don’t misunderstand me,” Hambledon continued very earnestly. “Alf is a good fellow. He’s very much liked in the business. But—well, he has never been a romantic figure. He lives for the firm, you know. He and George Mason built it between them. I’ve played in I.P. productions for twelve years now. Eight pieces in all and in five of them I’ve played opposite Carolyn.”

  He had the actor’s habit of giving full dramatic value to everything he said. His beautiful voice, with its practised inflexions, suggested a romantic attachment.

  “She’s rather a wonderful person,” he said.

  “He means that,” thought his companion. “He is in love with her.”

  His mind went back to the long journey in the ship with Carolyn Dacres very much the star turn, but not, he had to admit, aggressively the great actress. She and her pale, plump, rather common, rather uninteresting husband, had sat in deck chairs, he with a portable typewriter on his knees and she with a book. Very often Hambledon had sat on the other side of her, also with a book. They had none of them joined in the all-night poker parties with young Courtney Broadhead, Liversidge and Valerie Gaynes. Thinking of these three he turned to look up the dim carriage. There was young Broadhead, still awake, still staring at the blind window-pane with its blank reflections. As if conscious of the other’s gaze he jerked his head uneasily and with an abrupt movement rose to his feet and came down the carriage. As he passed them he said:

  “Fresh air. I’m going out to the platform.”

  “Young ass,” said Hambledon when he had gone through the door. “He’s been losing his money. You can’t indulge in those sorts of frills, on his salary.”

  They both looked at the glass door. Broadhead’s back was against it.

  “I’m worried about that boy,” Hambledon went on.
No business of mine, of course, but one doesn’t like to see that kind of thing.”

  “They were playing high, certainly.”

  “A fiver to come in last night, I believe. I looked into the smoke-room before I went to bed. Liversidge had won a packet. Courtney looked very sick. Early in the voyage I tried to tip him the wink, but he’d got in with that bear-leader and his cub.”

  “Weston and young Palmer, you mean?”

  “Yes. They’re on the train. The cub’s likely to stick to our heels all through the tour, I’m afraid.”


  “What they used to call ‘shook on the pros.’ He hangs round Carolyn, I suppose you’ve noticed. She tells me his father—he’s a Sir Something Palmer and noisesomely rich—has packed him off to New Zealand with Weston in the hope of teaching him sense. Weston’s his cousin. The boy was sacked from his public school, I believe. Shipboard gossip.”

  “It is strange,” said the tall man, “how a certain type of Englishman still regards the dominions either as a waste-paper basket or a purge.”

  “You are not a colonial, surely?”

  “Oh, no. I speak without prejudice. Hullo, I believe we’re stopping.”

  A far-away whistle was followed by the sound of banging doors and a voice that chanted something indistinguishable. These sounds grew louder. Presently the far door of their own carriage opened and the guard came down the corridor.

  “Five minutes at Ohakune for refreshments,” he chanted, and went out at the near door. Broadhead moved aside for him.

  “Refreshments!” said Hambledon. “Good lord!”

  “Oh, I don’t know. A cup of coffee perhaps. Anyway a gulp of fresh air.”

  “Perhaps you’re right. What did he say was the name of the station?”

  “I don’t know. It sounded like a rune or incantation.”

  “O—ah—coo—nee,” said Susan Max, unexpectedly.

  “Hullo, Susie, you’ve come up to breathe, have you?” asked Hambledon.

  “I haven’t been to sleep, dear,” said Susan. “Not really asleep, you know.”

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