“Oh, damn!” said Lord Peter Wimsey at Piccadilly Circus. “Hi, driver!”
The taxi man, irritated at receiving this appeal while negotiating the intricacies of turning into Lower Regent Street across the route of a 19 ’bus, a 38-B and a bicycle, bent an unwilling ear.
“I’ve left the catalogue behind,” said Lord Peter deprecatingly. “Uncommonly careless of me. D’you mind puttin’ back to where we came from?”
“To the Savile Club, sir?”
“No—110 Piccadilly—just beyond—thank you.”
“Thought you was in a hurry,” said the man, overcome with a sense of injury.
“I’m afraid it’s an awkward place to turn in,” said Lord Peter, answering the thought rather than the words. His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.
The taxi, under the severe eye of a policeman, revolved by slow jerks, with a noise like the grinding of teeth.
The block of new, perfect and expensive flats in which Lord Peter dwelt upon the second floor, stood directly opposite the Green Park, in a spot for many years occupied by the skeleton of a frustrate commercial enterprise. As Lord Peter let himself in he heard his man’s voice in the library, uplifted in that throttled stridency peculiar to well-trained persons using the telephone.
“I believe that’s his lordship just coming in again—if your Grace would kindly hold the line a moment.”
“What is it, Bunter?”
“Her Grace has just called up from Denver, my lord. I was just saying your lordship had gone to the sale when I heard your lordship’s latchkey.”
“Thanks,” said Lord Peter; “and you might find me my catalogue, would you? I think I must have left it in my bedroom, or on the desk.”
He sat down to the telephone with an air of leisurely courtesy, as though it were an acquaintance dropped in for a chat.
“Hullo, Mother—that you?”
“Oh, there you are, dear,” replied the voice of the Dowager Duchess. “I was afraid I’d just missed you.”
“Well, you had, as a matter of fact. I’d just started off to Brocklebury’s sale to pick up a book or two, but I had to come back for the catalogue. What’s up?”
“Such a quaint thing,” said the Duchess. “I thought I’d tell you. You know little Mr. Thipps?”
“Thipps?” said Lord Peter. “Thipps? Oh, yes, the little architect man who’s doing the church roof. Yes. What about him?”
“Mrs. Throgmorton’s just been in, in quite a state of mind.”
“Sorry, Mother, I can’t hear. Mrs. Who?”
“Throgmorton—Throgmorton—the vicar’s wife.”
“Oh, Throgmorton, yes?”
“Mr. Thipps rang them up this morning. It was his day to come down, you know.”
“He rang them up to say he couldn’t. He was so upset, poor little man. He’d found a dead body in his bath.”
“Sorry, Mother, I can’t hear; found what, where?”
“A dead body, dear, in his bath.”
“What?—no, no, we haven’t finished. Please don’t cut us off. Hullo! Hullo! Is that you, Mother? Hullo!—Mother!—Oh, yes—sorry, the girl was trying to cut us off. What sort of body?”
“A dead man, dear, with nothing on but a pair of pince-nez. Mrs. Throgmorton positively blushed when she was telling me. I’m afraid people do get a little narrow-minded in country vicarages.”
“Well, it sounds a bit unusual. Was it anybody he knew?”
“No, dear, I don’t think so, but, of course, he couldn’t give her many details. She said he sounded quite distracted. He’s such a respectable little man—and having the police in the house and so on, really worried him.”
“Poor little Thipps! Uncommonly awkward for him. Let’s see, he lives in Battersea, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, dear; 59, Queen Caroline Mansions; opposite the Park. That big block just round the corner from the Hospital. I thought perhaps you’d like to run round and see him and ask if there’s anything we can do. I always thought him a nice little man.”
“Oh, quite,” said Lord Peter, grinning at the telephone. The Duchess was always of the greatest assistance to his hobby of criminal investigation, though she never alluded to it, and maintained a polite fiction of its non-existence.
“What time did it happen, Mother?”
“I think he found it early this morning, but, of course, he didn’t think of telling the Throgmortons just at first. She came up to me just before lunch—so tiresome, I had to ask her to stay. Fortunately, I was alone. I don’t mind being bored myself, but I hate having my guests bored.”
“Poor old Mother! Well, thanks awfully for tellin’ me. I think I’ll send Bunter to the sale and toddle round to Battersea now an’ try and console the poor little beast. So-long.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Her Grace tells me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.”
“Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.”
“Very, Bunter. Your choice of words is unerring. I wish Eton and Balliol had done as much for me. Have you found the catalogue?”
“Here it is, my lord.”
“Thanks. I am going to Battersea at once. I want you to attend the sale for me. Don’t lose time—I don’t want to miss the Folio Dante nor the de Voragine—here you are—see? ‘Golden Legend’—Wynkyn de Worde, 1493—got that?—and, I say, make a special effort for the Caxton folio of the ‘Four Sons of Aymon’—it’s the 1489 folio and unique. Look! I’ve marked the lots I want, and put my outside offer against each. Do your best for me. I shall be back to dinner.”
“Very good, my lord.”
“Take my cab and tell him to hurry. He may for you; he doesn’t like me very much. Can I,” said Lord Peter, looking at himself in the eighteenth-century mirror over the mantelpiece, “can I have the heart to fluster the flustered Thipps further—that’s very difficult to say quickly—by appearing in a top-hat and frock-coat? I think not. Ten to one he will overlook my trousers and mistake me for the undertaker. A grey suit, I fancy, neat but not gaudy, with a hat to tone, suits my other self better. Exit the amateur of first editions; new motive introduced by solo bassoon; enter Sherlock Holmes, disguised as a walking gentleman. There goes Bunter. Invaluable fellow—never offers to do his job when you’ve told him to do somethin’ else. Hope he doesn’t miss the ‘Four Sons of Aymon.’ Still, there is another copy of that—in the Vatican. It might become available, you never know—if the Church of Rome went to pot or Switzerland invaded Italy—whereas a strange corpse doesn’t turn up in a suburban bathroom more than once in a lifetime—at least, I should think not—at any rate, the number of times it’s happened, with a pince-nez, might be counted on the fingers of one hand, I imagine. Dear me! it’s a dreadful mistake to ride two hobbies at once.”
He had drifted across the passage into his bedroom, and was changing with a rapidity one might not have expected from a man of his mannerisms. He selected a dark-green tie to match his socks and tied it accurately without hesitation or the slightest compression of his lips; substituted a pair of brown shoes for his black ones, slipped a monocle into a breast pocket, and took up a beautiful Malacca walking-stick with a heavy silver knob.
“That’s all, I think,” he murmured to himself. “Stay—I may as well have you—you may come in useful—one never knows.” He added a flat silver matchbox to his equipment, glanced at his watch, and seeing that it was already a quarter to three, ran briskly downstairs, and, hailing a taxi, was carried to Battersea Park.
Mr. Alfred Thipps was a small, nervous man, whose flaxen hair was beginning to abandon the unequal struggle with destiny. One might say that his only really marked feature was a large bruise over the left eyebrow, which gave him a faintly dissipated air incongruous with the rest of his appearance. Almost in the same breath with his first greeting, he made a self-conscious apology for it, murmuring something about having run against the dining-room door in the dark. He was touched almost to tears by Lord Peter’s thoughtfulness and condescension in calling.
“I’m sure it’s most kind of your lordship,” he repeated for the dozenth time, rapidly blinking his weak little eyelids. “I appreciate it very deeply, very deeply, indeed, and so would Mother, only she’s so deaf, I don’t like to trouble you with making her understand. It’s been very hard all day,” he added, “with the policemen in the house and all this commotion. It’s what Mother and me have never been used to, always living very retired, and it’s most distressing to a man of regular habits, my lord, and reely, I’m almost thankful Mother doesn’t understand, for I’m sure it would worry her terribly if she was to know about it. She was upset at first, but she’s made up some idea of her own about it now, and I’m sure it’s all for the best.”
The old lady who sat knitting by the fire nodded grimly in response to a look from her son.
“I always said as you ought to complain about that bath, Alfred,” she said suddenly, in the high, piping voice peculiar to the deaf, “and it’s to be ’oped the landlord’ll see about it now; not but what I think you might have managed without having the police in, but there! you always were one to make a fuss about a little thing, from chicken-pox up.”
“There now,” said Mr. Thipps apologetically, “you see how it is. Not but what it’s just as well she’s settled on that, because she understands we’ve locked up the bathroom and don’t try to go in there. But it’s been a terrible shock to me, sir—my lord, I should say, but there! my nerves are all to pieces. Such a thing has never ’appened—happened to me in all my born days. Such a state I was in this morning—I didn’t know if I was on my head or my heels—I reely didn’t, and my heart not being too strong, I hardly knew how to get out of that horrid room and telephone for the police. It’s affected me, sir, it’s affected me, it reely has—I couldn’t touch a bit of breakfast, nor lunch neither, and what with telephoning and putting off clients and interviewing people all morning, I’ve hardly known what to do with myself.”
“I’m sure it must have been uncommonly distressin’,” said Lord Peter, sympathetically, “especially comin’ like that before breakfast. Hate anything tiresome happenin’ before breakfast. Takes a man at such a confounded disadvantage, what?”
“That’s just it, that’s just it,” said Mr. Thipps, eagerly. “When I saw that dreadful thing lying there in my bath, mother-naked, too, except for a pair of eyeglasses, I assure you, my lord, it regularly turned my stomach, if you’ll excuse the expression. I’m not very strong, sir, and I get that sinking feeling sometimes in the morning, and what with one thing and another I ’ad—had to send the girl for a stiff brandy, or I don’t know what mightn’t have happened. I felt so queer, though I’m anything but partial to spirits as a rule. Still, I make it a rule never to be without brandy in the house, in case of emergency, you know?”
“Very wise of you,” said Lord Peter, cheerfully. “You’re a very far-seein’ man, Mr. Thipps. Wonderful what a little nip’ll do in case of need, and the less you’re used to it the more good it does you. Hope your girl is a sensible young woman, what? Nuisance to have women faintin’ and shriekin’ all over the place.”
“Oh, Gladys is a good girl,” said Mr. Thipps, “very reasonable indeed. She was shocked, of course; that’s very understandable. I was shocked myself, and it wouldn’t be proper in a young woman not to be shocked under the circumstances, but she is reely a helpful, energetic girl in a crisis, if you understand me. I consider myself very fortunate these days to have got a good, decent girl to do for me and Mother, even though she is a bit careless and forgetful about little things, but that’s only natural. She was very sorry indeed about having left the bathroom window open, she reely was, and though I was angry at first, seeing what’s come of it, it wasn’t anything to speak of, not in the ordinary way, as you might say. Girls will forget things, you know, my lord, and reely she was so distressed I didn’t like to say too much to her. All I said was: ‘It might have been burglars,’ I said, ‘remember that, next time you leave a window open all night; this time it was a dead man,’ I said, ‘and that’s unpleasant enough, but next time it might be burglars,’ I said, ‘and all of us murdered in our beds.’ But the police inspector—Inspector Sugg, they called him, from the Yard—he was very sharp with her, poor girl. Quite frightened her, and made her think he suspected her of something, though what good a body could be to her, poor girl, I can’t imagine, and so I told the inspector. He was quite rude to me, my lord—I may say I didn’t like his manner at all. ‘If you’ve got anything definite to accuse Gladys or me of, Inspector,’ I said to him, ‘bring it forward, that’s what you have to do,’ I said, ‘but I’ve yet to learn that you’re paid to be rude to a gentleman in his own ’ouse—house.’ Reely,” said Mr. Thipps, growing quite pink on the top of his head, “he regularly roused me, regularly roused me, my lord, and I’m a mild man as a rule.”
“Sugg all over,” said Lord Peter. “I know him. When he don’t know what else to say, he’s rude. Stands to reason you and the girl wouldn’t go collectin’ bodies. Who’d want to saddle himself with a body? Difficulty’s usually to get rid of ’em. Have you got rid of this one yet, by the way?”
“It’s still in the bathroom,” said Mr. Thipps. “Inspector Sugg said nothing was to be touched till his men came in to move it. I’m expecting them at any time. If it would interest your lordship to have a look at it—”
“Thanks awfully,” said Lord Peter. “I’d like to very much, if I’m not puttin’ you out.”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Thipps. His manner as he led the way along the passage convinced Lord Peter of two things—first, that, gruesome as his exhibit was, he rejoiced in the importance it reflected upon himself and his flat, and secondly, that Inspector Sugg had forbidden him to exhibit it to anyone. The latter supposition was confirmed by the action of Mr. Thipps, who stopped to fetch the door-key from his bedroom, saying that the police had the other, but that he made it a rule to have two keys to every door, in case of accident.
Copyright © 2019 by Dorothy L. Sayers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.