The telephone was ringing again. Miss Harriet Vane crawled out of bed to the instrument ready to curse whoever thought that ’phoning at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning when one had been out until three could possibly be socially acceptable.
‘Harriet! Thank heavens I’ve caught you. Have the press been on to you yet?’
‘Eiluned?’ Harriet leant groggily against the table. ‘You do know what time it is? What on earth are you calling about?’
‘It’s Philip Boyes: he’s been found dead!’
‘And not through natural causes. In fact it’s all rather beastly, only we thought if we waited to come round the police or newspaper men might get you first, and that would be an even worse shock.’
‘How do you know?’
‘He had one of Sylvia’s cards on him – an old one, from last year’s exhibition, he’d scribbled a note on the back or something – and the police came round here at six. He’d been found in an alley by a telegraph boy.’
‘But what happened to him? Has he – was it suicide?’
‘I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit of a shock, darling – he’s been murdered and, well, his body was completely drained of blood.’
Harriet Vane reminded herself once again why she had come to the party and why she was not going to leave early. She was here to show her face, to refuse to be driven out by Philip’s friends, to express the opinions she had learnt too late that even the most self-described modern men did not like to hear voiced by a woman, and if Phil was here too, she wasn’t going to run away. She was damned if she was ever going to let herself be bullied again.
Nonetheless, she wished she had chosen a rather better party at which to make her stand. The food had been inadequate, the tea stewed and Chianti cheap, and the entertainment not what one might have wished for. It had begun with a woman of forty or so reading a rather frank erotic memoir. Harriet had spent an excruciating twenty minutes concentrating hard on the undeniable technical accomplishment of both writing and performance, and wishing she could crawl into the cupboard and close the door behind her. Inevitably, much of the evening’s subsequent conversation had been on the same topic, although this was perhaps better than enduring any more of the other ‘act’, the romantic tripe of a young poet with an extraordinary accent that Harriet diagnosed as slumming aristocracy, and a muse by the name of Cecily. Ricocheting from one over-confessional conversation to another, Harriet had found herself face-to-face with the poet. For all his wet-fish verse, he had a powerful, if odd charisma. His clothes bespoke a man trying too hard in an uncertain direction, but he really had the most extraordinary cheekbones, and – she shook herself sternly. He was a dreadful poet, and the cultivated sensitivity no doubt accompanied the usual male poet’s ego. She did not want to get to know him better. She did, however, restrain her comments about his verse to ‘heartfelt’, ‘passionate’, and a query as to his choice in rejecting the present fashion for free verse. There was something about him that suggested – a queer suggestion tickling the spine – that absolute honesty in this case might not be entirely wise.
It was perhaps inevitable that having escaped the poet, the sex-talk, and the Russian tea, that Harriet would find herself cornered by Phil after all, and having the same weary conversation she had dragged herself though the last time she had bumped into him at one of these things. Perhaps she shouldn’t dispose of the product of yesterday’s speculative trip to the chemist after all; a non-fatal dose of strychnine, swiftly ingested in the lavatory, might be a useful last-ditch means of escaping the grimmer social occasions, and if – the novelist’s mind ran on ahead - if some villain managed, by nefarious means, to substitute a more powerful dose, then it could be a very neat way of concealing murder as suicide or accident, a nice variation on the theme of persuading the victim to take his poison as a pill.
‘Harriet! You’re not listening.’
She shook herself back to the present. Phil had reached the end of what was presumably meant to be a passionate and irresistible plea, and was looking surprised at her lack of response. Harriet smiled brightly.
‘You’re quite right, Phil, I’m not. I’ve told you. I have no intention of taking you back. I don’t love you, and even if I did, I’d still never want anything to do with you again.’
‘But, darling Harriet,’ he leaned forward and despite herself she pressed herself back against the wall away from him, ‘I don’t understand.’
‘That’s rather the point, isn’t it?’ Perhaps she ought simply to storm off. It couldn’t fail to convey her opinions any more than speech had done. She was just bracing herself to turn when she realised the way was blocked.
‘I hate to intrude,’ he grinned, ‘but it looks as though this man is making a nuisance of himself. I thought I might do something about it, if you know what I mean.’
It was the poet, with his floppy hair, ludicrous accent, and seemingly a self-image that included rescuing damsels in distress. Harriet sighed. If these two were proposing to come to fisticuffs over her, the evening could get no worse. It was definitely time to go home.
‘Please do. I really couldn’t care less if I never see him again.’
A glint of teeth in the smile, bright and sharp.
‘My pleasure, miss. Think of it as a gift from one artist to another.’
Harriet rescued her coat from the dog’s bed and left.
‘Harriet? Harriet, are you still there? Look, don’t do anything. We’ll come round to your flat.’
‘I can’t pretend I’m going to mourn him – I’m not. I was so tired of it all. If he’d been knocked by a car or something I might even be relieved. I know it sounds horribly cool, but it’s true. It would have meant it was all over at last. But murder!’ She drained the brandy glass and placed it on the table. ‘I suppose the police will be round soon. Oh, of course they will. It’s not as if Phil and I had parted on good terms.’
For a man with an eviscerated corpse to deal with on a Sunday morning, Chief-Inspector Parker was remarkably calm. Harriet almost suspected that he was more perturbed to find that she was not weeping tears of remorse into her coffee than by someone wreaking horrors on his patch. She recited her movements of the previous evening and he recorded them – presumably faithfully – in a little book. No, she said, there was certainly nobody who could give her an alibi for four o’clock that morning, and then she realised what he was implying, and felt ashamed and hated herself for it.
‘This poet – would you have thought he was a strong man?’
‘Oh no! He was terribly weedy. I can’t possibly imagine him hurting Phil. He – I suppose people are inclined to think of all modern writers as effete intellectuals, Chief-Inspector, but Phil was really pretty strong, and he played games and things – rugby, and tennis, and he even boxed a bit at school.’
‘I see. Well, Miss Vane, you’ve been very helpful. I don’t mind telling you that you needn’t worry that we suspect you of any involvement. All the evidence suggests that Mr Boyes must have been killed by a man of tremendous physical strength. Besides – I shouldn’t say this, except that I already know that it will be all over a special edition of the Morning Star by three o’clock – his is not the first such death. There’s been a string of killings across France over the last three months, and we’ve had a suspicious corpse or two in the river ourselves. The journalists will call it black magic, of course.’
‘What do you call it, Chief Inspector?’
‘Oh Charles! What a marvellous case. A Bohemian artist found in an alley, beaten hard before death, but not hard enough to kill him, no blood, and an unmoved ex-girlfriend. You are exonerating the girlfriend, by the way?’
‘That’s what I’ve told her, though she’s certainly a cool character. Still, I can’t see how a woman could possibly have done it, even a tall girl who plays a good bit of tennis or whatever it is that women do for exercise these days.’
‘I too am disinclined to suspect the girlfriend, although probably not for the same reasons. The poet, on the other hand, intrigues me. You say you’ve no other name than William, no address, and no history, so how did he get into the party? These people can be pretty exclusive in their own way.’
‘A fellow poet – one Maurice Combe – brought him along. Combe admits he thought this William so untalented as to be the poetic equivalent of a freak show. Only it seems that bad as he undoubtedly was, for some reason no-one quite fancied being the person to tell him so. Except, according to another friend of our victim, Mr Boyes, who was most voluble on the subject after having spotted William in conversation with Miss Vane.’
‘The girlfriend. In any case, there are plenty of witnesses to Miss Vane’s comments, which were just the sort of thing one might say to a slightly peculiar young man one wanted to escape from as quickly as possible, and I think we can put any suggestions of romantic rivalry down to hurt male pride.’
‘That’s all very well, Charles, but are you or are you not talking about Miss Harriet Vane, author of Death by Candlelight and detective novelist of genius?’
‘Well, if you put it like that, I suppose I am. I can’t say I care for her stuff myself – too much puzzle, not enough plod.’
‘Your ego, Charles, will be the death of you. Never mind, that will allow me to take over the case. I am intrigued, I am entranced, and I am positively bursting to meet Miss Vane. I do like her books, and she does not strike me as the sort of young woman to say that a chap gave her a funny feeling unless the chap were very funny indeed. The poet, the poet I am sure is the key to this case. As certain also of your poets have said, anonymous weedy men are dangerous, and even those whose vanity would prefer such synonyms as lithe or wiry might surprise the beefy with a well-studied trick or two.’
‘All right, Peter. You’ve made your point. I never said big, I said strong. Take your argument up with Miss Vane. I’m meeting her this afternoon to go through some photographs of potential poets; she’s a good witness, so we might as well use her, and I’d like to keep on her just in case, you understand. Why don’t you come along?’
‘No. I’m sorry, he wasn’t any of these men.’
‘Quite sure. I said he was weedy, but all the men in these photographs look as if they've have been ill, or unfed, or just feeble-looking. This William wasn’t like that. I said he looked weedy, but, I don’t know quite how to put it: it was his attitude as much as anything. No, I don’t mean that. Rather that he very much wanted to look tough, but it only emphasised those parts of him that were the opposite. I’m afraid I’m not explaining very well.’
‘That’s all right, Miss Vane. You’re really being a very good witness.’
‘Am I, Chief-Inspector? That’s very flattering. I expect you hate my books,’ the Chief-Inspector demurred politely ‘but it’s quite difficult to try and be realistic when one can’t get much out of the Force about what realism would mean.’
‘Well,’ said Lord Peter, who had hitherto been silent. ‘At the moment our best guess is this. Notwithstanding a number of exsanguinated corpses that have been turning up across Europe in a manner that some might incline to describe as provocative, Mr Boyes, possibly having had a little more to drink than was good for him, quarrelled with this poet William, went outside with him, fought him, and somehow lost his blood and his life and ended up in an alley several miles from where he was last seen. I hate to ask this, Miss Vane, but might he have had any reason, to, as it were, go looking for a fight?’
‘With the object of getting himself killed, you mean? I’ve wondered about it. Ultimately he could be quite defeatist, and I – what you want to know is about him and, and me, isn’t it?’
Wimsey shrugged apologetically. ‘Fearfully sorry to allude to it and all that, but one never knows what’s important. You told Parker you’d quarrelled yesterday evening. If Boyes took it badly, or William saw himself as a knight in shining armour...’
‘We didn’t quarrel – not yesterday, anyway. Phil wanted to talk about something, I didn’t, he didn’t understand. That was all. If he was going to make away with himself over that, why didn’t he do it months ago?’
‘Perhaps he didn’t think things were so bad between you months ago.’
‘Things weren’t “bad” between us yesterday! There was nothing between us. It was over. Oh for goodness sake, I know you’re both dying to ask, and Mr Parker has an interrogatory look in his eye that wonders just what else a woman who was so immoral might do, so why don’t I just tell you? It’ll save time, and possibly Mr Parker’s wondering whether I have a secret dark enough to make it worth my having my lover murdered.
‘I agreed to live with Phil without being married to him because he said he didn’t agree with marriage, that he was philosophically opposed to it, but that he would live with me as if we were married, and it would be just the same. I - well, it doesn’t matter why - I didn’t want to agree to it at first, but in the end I did. We were happy enough for about a year or so, but then he, he did something I couldn’t forgive – that made me see how deceived I’d been in him, and what a fool I’d made of myself – and I told him I never wanted to see him again and left. As far as I was concerned everything was quite over then, and I’ve – I had - never given him any reason to think I had changed my mind.’ She sat up straighter in her chair. ‘There. Now I’ve embarrassed all of us and you can ask the rest of your questions.’
Wimsey sat silent, but Parker leaned forward and looked at Harriet calmly across the table.
‘What did he do, Miss Vane?’
‘Really, Charles! Must you ask?’
‘I’m afraid I must. Miss Vane, you must see that if he could quarrel with one person so badly that she would scarcely agree to see him again, he might well do it again.’
‘Not in this case.’
‘Miss Vane, I really must insist -’
‘Actually, Charles, you can’t – unless you are putting the young lady under caution, in which case she may prefer to wait for a solicitor. I can recommend some very good ones.’
‘It’s all right, Lord Peter. You needn’t be offended on my behalf. I broke with Phil because after living with me for a year he proposed marriage to me. I saw what a position he’d put me in – what he really thought of me – and everything just fell apart. So I left. That’s really all there is to it.’
‘You left him because he proposed marriage to you?’
‘I don’t expect you to understand it either, Chief-Inspector. I don’t imagine most people would.’
‘I must say – ’
‘Don’t, please, Charles, say anything. You’ll only make an ass of yourself. I understand well enough. Damn it, if the man were alive I’d offer to go round and kick him downstairs myself. Of all the unpleasant blighters...’ Lord Peter caught himself, suddenly and acutely aware of the stare of two pairs of eyes upon him. ‘Of course it’s clear enough. On the evenin’ in question, as the Law puts it, Mr Boyes was trying to persuade you, Miss Vane, to give him another chance, you told him where to take himself, he persisted, and you were naturally not unwilling to escape when the opportunity presented itself. Isn’t that so?’
‘All of which may explain a little as to why he quarrelled with a man about whose poetry Miss Vane had been, let us say, judiciously honest, and who seems to have been spoiling for a fight, but nothing about why he ended up dead some time later. Foiled again, Charles, foiled again!’
Harriet Vane sat at her desk looking blindly over her proofs. The papers had carried ever more bizarre speculation for the past three days, but she had heard nothing further from the police. The poet William had not been found, and Philip Boyes’ face stared at her in her dreams.
Think of it as a gift from one artist to another.
She picked up the telephone.
‘Thank you for coming, Lord Peter.’
‘My pleasure. Always like to stay a hop ahead of the police, donchaknow. Not that Parker ain’t a jolly good sort, but there’s something about official notice that makes it harder to cast a fly towards the old trout. One feels such a frightful ass if one only hooks an old boot.’
‘That’s it exactly. No, it isn’t. It’s worse than that. I’m afraid you’ll think me quite mad.’
‘Oh, surely not. I can believe six impossible things before breakfast – more, after a heavy night. You tell me what you’re thinking, Miss Vane, and we’ll make sense of it.’
‘You won’t send for the men in white coats?’
‘Not on any account – they’d only take me as well, and my man would worry. Out with it and you’ll feel better, as Nanny used to say.’
Harriet rubbed her face with her hands. ‘I’ve read the papers,’ she said. ‘Are the police any further forward?’
‘No. They’ve found a young chap who says he heard a fight about that time, but naturally he didn’t think anything of it and didn’t stop to find out. Combe knows nothing – met the man in a nightclub, no idea where he’s from. He thought that William was at the place with a girl, but admitted he wouldn’t know her from the Queen of Sheba. You’re all we’ve got, Miss Vane. Now, confess all, and if need be I’ll have Bunter send round poison for two in the library. You haven’t got a library, but the study will do.’
‘Lord Peter, I know that William killed Philip Boyes.’
‘I can see that. How do you know it?’
‘No, it isn’t – not if you believe it.’
‘I told you what he said, about doing something about it. I admit; I knew he wanted to fight Phil, and I didn’t care. I know it sounds stupid, and it wasn’t that I had visions of some sort of duel over me or anything like that. I didn’t think that Phil would get seriously hurt, but I did suspect that William was stronger than he looked. I thought if Phil were - if he had a taste of what it was like to be humiliated, he wouldn’t come after me again, and if he landed one or two on the poet, well, it wasn’t any of his business to protect me either. I wanted rid of both of them and to go home.’
‘But there was something – I knew it at the time, but I only thought it was funny. You know what it’s like – one’s on the train and something happens and one exchanges a glance with another passenger and feels conspiratorial. Or at school, when one sees how another girl is going to make the mistress look a fool. It was like that. He just looked at me, and I thought, “Go ahead.” But I see now what he meant to do.’
‘To kill Boyes?’
‘Yes. Honestly, Lord Peter, I’m quite sure of it. There was something about it; I noticed at the time. His verse was terrible, but I couldn’t say so – it was as if there was something about him that frightened me almost without my being aware of it, right down in the place where children are afraid of the dark, or of monsters or - you know?’
‘And then thinking about what happened to Phil – how vicious the killer must have been to have hurt him like that, and how he died. It’s not quite that I feel it’s my fault, but I do feel horribly complicit somehow, and it’s nothing I can say to the police, and it’s probably a novelist’s imagination and too much LeFanu, but I can’t quite help thinking that this William knows who I am, and it’s quite ridiculously gothic but my mind will keep thinking – ’
‘Yes. I know it’s ridiculous, but frightening things so often are.’
‘Aren’t they? And whilst I can’t think that Boyes was murdered by a romantic poetical vampire, I can quite believe that somebody intended that gruesome means of despatch to call the beast to mind, and I definitely think that it’s perfectly natural and not at all unreasonable for you to wonder about your own safety. As a matter of fact, the police have been watching your flat for the past few nights. If you come to the window, you’ll see a skulkin’ bloke beneath those trees.’
‘Afraid I’d run off?’
‘I don’t think so. More afraid their best witness may have stumbled on something more involved than we’re aware, and that there ought to be a watchful eye on the surroundin’ shrubbery for her own benefit.’
‘Now, you can’t be getting any work done while you’re frightening yourself thinking of horrors. Come out and have dinner with me, and afterwards you can go and stay with a friend, if you aren’t convinced by the short bloke in the square - or we can ask Parker to post someone more obvious now that you know all about it. Go and change, and I shall lurk among your bookshelves observing that you have the latest Heyer and I am in the mood for frivolity.’
Miss Vane, doing her best not to be conscious that her rust-coloured dress, however well it suited her, was not quite up to the Ritz, ate her quail neatly but with enthusiasm, and accepted a second glass of wine with the alacrity – flattering or not as the case may be - that informs a man that he has passed a test and the lady does not believe his intention is to seduce her. Lord Peter was just beginning to think that it might be a jolly entertaining thing, and a jolly bad idea, to seduce Miss Vane, but that it could be a really excellent idea to get to know her better, when the figure of Parker in a boiled shirt threaded its way through the tables towards them.
‘Evenin’ Officer. I do hope this isn’t going to become a habit, Parker-bird. I really cannot have the police turning up every time I take a girl to the Ritz. Some reputations are hard to shake off. Sit down and tell us, oh best beloved, what is your news, and for heaven’s sake don’t order a grilled steak again.’
Parker shook out his napkin, sat down, and ordered an omelette. Wimsey groaned.
‘I thought Miss Vane would rather know at once,’ Parker said. ‘I’ve had a call from the Sûreté. They have a body in Bordeaux – thank you Peter, I can live without the pun – and even more interesting they have had a fight at the docks and two badly injured men, one of whom fell off the quay, who is even now being dragged for, who was seen last night drinking in one of the more intellectual cafes, and who went, it seems, by the name of William.’
‘Say on, Macduff. This all sounds most promising.’
‘Well, I can’t make any promises – there was a high tide and strong winds and they haven’t yet found the second body, so we can’t be certain that there’s going to be anything firmer by way of identification – but the modus operandi certainly sounds promising.’
‘Oh, excellent news Charles! Not for the poor chap in Bordeaux, of course, but at least Miss Vane needn’t have nightmares about sharp-toothed murderers nibbling at her neck.’
‘Oh, you’d thought of that one, too, had you?’
‘It’s hardly surprising. No blood, puncture marks on the neck, funny how you didn’t mention that to Miss Vane, Charles, and the unexpected strength. A much more natural conclusion than a gang of thugs with some nasty ideas about initiation rites for their men and scaring their rivals. I assume that is what you’ve come up with?’
‘Unless it’s drugs, of course,’ commented Harriet. ‘It always is in the press, unless it’s white slavery, but I don’t know how often it’s drugs in more mundane reality.’
‘More often than it’s white slavery,’ Parker grinned. ‘Of course, it could be drugs, but given that we have absolutely no evidence either way, I’d prefer not to have any more “Police Lose Drugs Gang” headlines than I can help. We’ll stick with common-or-garden thugs, I think.’
‘Quite right, too. I assume you’ll leave your chap on Doughty Street for a couple of days to be on the safe side? Good man. Now finish your beastly omelette and shove off. Miss Vane and I are here on a date. She doesn’t know it, and I’ve only just discovered it, but so we are and we don’t need a gooseberry. Where’s the blasted waiter? Parker’s been guzzling the Burgundy quite appallingly, and on duty, too. Have a glass of this, Miss Vane, and let me tell you all about how I’m going to take you out tomorrow.’