YOU’D BETTER GO IN DISGUISE
How long had he been watching me? I wondered.
I had been standing for perhaps a quarter of an hour, gazing idly at the little boys in sailor suits and their sisters in pinafores, all of whom, watched over by a small army of nannies and a handful of mothers, waded like diminutive giants among their toy sailing boats in the Serpentine.
A sudden breeze had sprung up, scattering the fallen leaves and bringing the slightest of chills to an otherwise idyllic autumn afternoon. I shivered and turned up my collar, the hairs at the back of my neck bristling against my jacket.
To be precise, the pressure of my collar put a stop to the bristling which, since I had not noticed it until that moment, made the feeling all that much more peculiar.
Perhaps it was because I had, the previous week, attended Professor Malabar’s demonstration at the Palladium. His uncanny experiments in the world of the unseen were sufficient to give pause to even the greatest of sceptics, among whom, most assuredly, I do not count myself.
I must admit at the outset to an unshakeable belief in the theory that there is a force which emanates from the eye of a watcher that is detectable by some as-yet-undiscovered sensor at the back of the neck of the person being watched; a phenomenon which, I am furthermore convinced, is caused by a specialized realm of magnetism whose principles are not yet fully understood by science.
In short, I knew that I was being stared at, a fact which, in itself, is not necessarily without pleasure. What, for example, if one of those nattily uniformed nannies had her eye upon me? Even though I was presently more conservative than I once had been, I was keenly aware that I still cut rather a remarkable figure. At least, when I chose to.
I turned slowly, taking care to pitch my gaze above the heads of the governesses, but by the time I had turned through a casual half circle they were every one engaged again in gossip or absorbed in the pages of a book.
I studied them intently, paying close attention to all but one, who sat primly on a park bench, her head bowed, as if in silent prayer.
It was then that I spotted him: just beyond the swans; just beyond a tin toy Unterseeboot.
He was sitting quietly on a bench, his hands folded in his lap, his polished boots forming a carpenter’s square upon the gravelled path. A solicitor’s clerk, I should have thought, although his ascetic gauntness did not without contradiction suggest one who laboured in the law.
Even though he wanted not to be seen (a fact which, as a master of that art myself, I recognized at once), his eye, paradoxically all- seeing, was the eye of an eagle: hard, cold, and objective.
To my horror, I realized that my legs were propelling me inexorably towards the stranger and his bench, as if he had summoned me by means of some occult wireless device.
I found myself standing before him.
“A fine day,” he said, in a voice which might have been at home on the Shakespearean stage, and yet which, for all its resonance, struck a false note.
“One smells the city after the rain,” he went on, “for better or for worse.”
I smiled politely, my instincts pleading with me not to strike up a conversation with an over-chatty stranger.
He shifted himself sideways on the bench, touching the wooden seat with long fingers.
“Please sit,” he said, and I obeyed.
I pulled out a cigarette case, selected one, and patted my pockets for a match. As if by magic a Lucifer appeared at his fingertips, and, solicitously, he lit me up.
I offered him the open case, but he brushed it away with
a swift gesture of polite refusal. My exhaled smoke hung heavily in the autumn air.
“I perceive you are attempting to give up the noxious weed.”
I must have looked taken aback.
“The smell of bergamot,” he said, “is a dead giveaway. Oswego tea, they call it in America, where they drink an infusion of the stuff for no other reason than pleasure. Have you been to America?”
“Not in some time,” I said.
“Ah.” He nodded. “Just as I thought.”
“You seem to be a very observant person,” I ventured.
“I try to keep my hand in,” he said, “although it doesn’t come as easily as it did in my salad days. Odd, isn’t it, how, as they gain experience, the senses become blunted. One must keep them up by making a game of it, like the boy, Kim, in Kipling. Do you enjoy Kipling?”
I was tempted to reply with that exhausted old wheeze, I don’t know, I’ve never kippled, but something told me (that strange sense again) to keep it to myself.
“I haven’t read him for years,” I said.
“A singular person, Kipling. Remarkable, is it not, that a man with such weakened eyes should write so much about the sense of sight?”
“Compensation, perhaps,” I suggested.
“Ha! An alienist! You are a follower of Freud.”
Damn the fellow. Next thing I knew he’d be asking me to pick a card and telling me my auntie’s telephone number.
I gave him half a nod.
“Just so,” he said. “I perceived by your boots that you have been in Vienna. The soles of Herr Stockinger are unmistakable.”
I turned and, for the first time, sized the man up. He wore a tight- fitting jacket and ragged trousers, an open collar with a red scarf at his throat, and on his head, a tram conductor’s cap with the number 309 engraved on a brass badge.
Not a workman-no, too old for that, but someone who wanted to be taken for a workman. An insurance investigator, perhaps, and with that thought my heart ran suddenly cold.
“You must come here often,” I said, giving him back a taste of his own, “to guess out the occupations of strangers. Bit of a game with you, is it?”
His brow wrinkled.
“Game? There are no games on the battlefield of life,
“De Voors,” I said, blurting out the first thing that came to mind.
“Ah! De Voors. Dutch, then.”
It was not so much a question as a statement-as if he were ticking off an internal checklist.
“Yes,” I said. “Originally.”
“Do you speak the language?”
“As I suspected. The labials are not formed in that direction.”
“See here, Mister-”
“Montague,” he said, seizing my hand and giving it a hearty shake.
Why did I have the feeling he was simultaneously using his forefinger to gauge my pulse?
“._._._Samuel Montague. I am happy to meet you. Undeniably happy.”
He gave his cap a subservient tip, ending with a two-fingered salute at its brim.
“You have not answered my question, Mr. Montague,” I said. “Do you come here often to observe?”
“The parks of our great city are conducive to reflection,” he said. “I find that a great expanse of grass gives free rein to the mind.”
“Free rein is not always desirable,” I said, “in a mind accustomed to running in its own tram tracks.”
“Excellent!” he exclaimed. “A touch of metaphor. It is a characteristic not always to be found among the Dutch!”
“See here, Mr. Montague,” I said. “I don’t know that I like-”
But already his hand was on my arm.
“No offence, my dear fellow. No offence at all. In any case, I see that your British hedgehog outbristles your Dutch beech marten.”
“What the devil do you mean by that?” I said, leaping to my feet.
“Nothing at all. It was an attempted joke on my part that failed to jell-an impertinence. Please forgive me.”
He seized my sleeve and pulled me down beside him on the bench.
“That fellow over there,” he said in a low voice. “Don’t look at him directly-the one loitering beneath the lime. What do you make of him?”
“He is a doctor,” I replied quickly, eager to shift the focus from myself. The unexpected widening of my acquaintance’s eyes told me that I had scored a lucky hit.
“How can you tell?” he demanded.
“He has the slightly hunched shoulders of a man who has sat by many a sickbed.”
“And the tips of his fingers are stained with silver nitrate from the treating of warts.”
“How can you be sure he’s not a cigarette smoker and an apothecary?”
“He’s not smoking and apothecaries do not generally carry black bags.”
“Wonderful,” exclaimed Montague. “Add to that the pin of Bart’s Hospital in his lapel, the seal of the Royal College of Surgeons on his keychain, and the unmistakable outline of a stethoscope in his jacket pocket.”
I found myself grinning at him like a Cheshire cat.
I had fallen into the game.
“And the park keeper?”
I sized up the old man, who was picking up scraps of paper and lobbing them with precision into a wheeled refuse bin.
“An old soldier. He limps. He was wounded. His large body is mounted upon spindly legs. Probably spent a great deal of time in a military hospital recovering from his wounds. Not an officer-he doesn’t have the bearing. Infantry, I should say. Served in France.”
Montague bit the corner of his lip and gave me half a wink.
“Splendid!” he said.
“Now then,” he went on, pointing with his chin towards the woman sitting alone on the park bench closest to the water. “Over there is a person who seems quite ordinary-quite plain. No superabundance of clues to be had. I’ll bet you a shilling you can’t supply me with three solid facts about her.”
As he spoke, the woman leaped to her feet and called out to a child who was knee-deep in the water.
“Heinrich! Come here, my sweet little toad!”
“She is German,” I said.
“Quite so,” said Montague. “And can you venture more? Pray, do go on.”
“She’s German,” I said with finality, hoping to bring to an end this unwanted exercise. “And that’s an end of it.”
“Is it?” he asked, looking at me closely.
I did not condescend to reply.
“Let me see, then, if I may succeed in taking up where you have left off. As you have observed, she is German. We shall begin with that. Next, we shall note that she is married: the rings on the usual finger of the left hand make that quite clear, an opinion which is bolstered by the fact that young Heinrich, who has lost his stick in the water, is the very image of his pretty little mother.
“She is widowed-and very recently, if I am any judge. Her black dress is fresh from Peter Robinson’s Mourning Warehouse. Indeed, the tag is still affixed at the nape of her neck, which tells us, among many other things, that regardless of her apparent poise, she is greatly distracted and no longer has a maid.
“In spite of having overlooked the tag, she possesses excellent eyesight, evinced by the fact that she is able to read the excruciatingly small type of the book which is resting in her lap, and without more than an upward glance, keep an eye upon her child who is now nearly halfway across the basin. What do you suppose would bring such a woman to a public park?”
“Really, Montague,” I said. “You have no right-”
“Tut, my dear fellow. I am merely exercising the possibilities. In truth, I have barely scratched the surface. Where were we? Oh, yes. German. Indubitably German. But from which region in particular?
“Let us begin with young master Heinrich. What was it she called him? ‘My sweet toad,’ wasn’t it? An expression which, although not restricted to Baden, is nevertheless much more commonly to be heard there than in other parts of the country.
“Very well, then let us for the moment hypothesize that the young widow is from Baden. How may we test that rather broad assumption?
“Let us dwell for a moment upon her teeth. Surely you noticed, as I did when she called out to her child, that she showed a very fine, strong set of teeth, remarkable however, not for their completeness or their pleasing alignment, but rather for the fact that they are pinkish: a rare, but nonetheless documented phenomenon which arises only in those who have been accustomed to drink, from birth, the iron- rich waters of certain spas.
“As I know from my own remarkable cure in those waters, one of those with the highest content of ferric matter is at Mergentheim. Yes, I should say we could not go far astray if we pegged the lady as a Swabian from Baden. That and her accent, of course.”
I couldn’t restrain a laugh.
“Altogether far-fetched,” I told him. “Your hypotheses, as you call them, leave no elbow room for reality. What if, for instance, she is mourning her father? Or her mother? Or her great-grandmother, for that matter?”
“Then her name would not have been splashed all over the front pages of this morning’s newspapers as the wife of a murder victim.”
“Tragic, but nevertheless quite true, I assure you.”
He reached with two fingers into his vest pocket and extracted a double-columned clipping which he proceeded to unfold and flatten on his knee.
“Shocking death in Buncombe Place,” he read aloud. “Police were called at an early hour this morning to Number Six, Buncombe Place by Mrs. Frieda Barnett, who had, moments before, found her husband, Welland Barnett, aged fifty, of the same address, dead in the drawing room in a pool of his own blood. The victim had received a number of stab wounds to the back of his neck, any one of which might have proved fatal, according to the police surgeon at the scene_._._.
“They oughtn’t really to put that in,” he interrupted himself. “Not until autopsy and inquest are complete. I’m quite sure that heads will roll-if it is not indelicate to express such an opinion.”
I couldn’t find words to respond, and Montague went on with his reading.
“The deceased was described as a man of regular habits, and had no known enemies, according to Mrs. Barnett, who is left to mourn with her only child, Heinrich, aged four years_._._.
“They always go for the heart, don’t they, these scandal sheets-like the bullets at a military execution. Where were we-oh, yes, her child_._._.”
Montague paused to look out at the little boy who had now fished his stick from the water and was giving the surface a good wet thrashing by way of repayment.
“._._._her only child, Heinrich, aged four years,” he went on. “Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard has given it as his opinion that robbery may have been a motive, inasmuch as a small silver key of peculiar design was missing from its customary place upon the victim’s waistcoat chain, according to Ellen Dimity, the Barnetts’ cook. Inspector Gregson declined to give further information until investigations are complete, although he has requested that any person or persons who might have further information bearing upon this crime, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Would you like to read it?”
He offered the paper, but I shook my head.
“No thank you. I find such things upsetting.”
“Indeed,” he said, “as do I. Which is precisely why I made my way to Number Six, Buncombe Place, and begged my old friend Gregson to let me have a look round.”
“Inspector Gregson? You know him?”