HELEN PASSES BY
SLIGHTLY RUFFLED IN HIS usually fairly equable temper, the Wychshire Deputy Chief Constable, Bobby Owen, was walking back to his office after a meeting of the Watch Committee that had not been so calm and smoothly working as usual. The question of deaths on the road had been discussed—the figures had risen unpleasantly of late—and Bobby was discovering that one of the drawbacks of holding a responsible position is that of being held responsible for things over which you have not the least power or control. Very plainly had it been intimated to him that the duty of the police was to reduce road deaths to an absolute minimum, though of course without in any way interfering with the natural and inalienable right of the motorist to drive as fast as he liked, built up areas included, if the police weren’t around. Bobby, goaded by criticism, had remarked that if he were given the power, he could reduce road deaths by seventy-five per cent. in a few weeks. Asked how, he had suggested prohibiting the use of the horn, since too many motorists drove on the horn and believed that by sounding it they automatically relieved themselves of all responsibility. A taximan, he had remarked, would sometimes drive all day with-out sounding his horn once.
This had not been well received. It had indeed ruffled some tempers considerably. It was stigmatized as reactionary. Some-thing was said about Bolshevism, plain hints were dropped that though the Deputy Chief might have had his successes as a detective, this success had been obtained at the cost of some neglect in the administrative sphere. Instances were quoted of police duties less adequately performed than was desirable. Bobby retorted by quoting man-power figures. Impossible, he declared, to carry out duties there were not the men to perform. Thoroughly annoyed by now, he offered to resign, promised to hand in his resignation that very day, but had his hurt feelings and injured dignity assuaged by prompt, ample, and hurried expressions of confidence, even from motoring members of the Committee, still shaken to the depths of their souls by his audacious, unprecedented, revolutionary and totally impracticable suggestion.
“I didn’t know you were like that, Owen,” Sir Merrick Templemore, the Chairman of the Committee, remarked to him aside as the meeting was breaking up, and when Bobby asked, “Like what?” Sir Merrick shook a doleful head and said people, young people, were never satisfied nowadays unless they were trying to stand the world on its head. Give him, said Sir Merrick, the good old days when things stayed as they were and people knew where they were, and Bobby did not try to tell him that such days had never been nor could be and now less than ever.
All the same, Bobby was still feeling a little ruffled as he walked away, for never before had he been subjected to so much criticism; criticism he resented all the more because an uneasy conscience suggested that possibly the lure of the problem to be solved, the criminal to be brought to justice, attracted him more than did the steady, solid work of administration, conscientiously and capably performed as he knew it to have been. Also there was the road deaths question itself and none more troubling, more difficult, more pressing. Nor did he see what answer there could be, since the lives of children and speed on the road seem two incompatibles. It was for the community, he felt, to give to one or the other—in the new wartime slang—“first priority.”
On these not too pleasant meditations a voice broke suddenly, a deep, melodious voice, a voice indeed like that of the organ in its full command of every note and tone.
“Dear old boy,” the rich, full tones were saying, “this is a piece of luck. I am really glad to see you again,” and the last words sounded like a whole orchestra welcoming its collective and dearest, long-lost friend.
Therewith, before he quite knew what was happening, Bobby felt his hand seized and held in a brotherly grasp. Thus roused from his thoughts, Bobby saw a smallish man of about his own age, a trifle seedy in dress—but what is that in these days of early peace?—and of an almost fantastic ugliness. His enormous head was set upon an ill-proportioned body, with arms too long and legs so short he waddled rather than walked. There was a slight cast in one eye, his nose was flat and squat and yet managed to be twisted, too; an enormous mouth showed large, discoloured and uneven teeth, his ears flapped like a young elephant’s—the legend was that he could waggle them at will—his chin seemed to have been lost; and his complexion resembled that of an imperfectly poached egg, diversified by a mole or two and patches of reddish brown hair a blunt or careless razor had failed to remove.
No one, even those not possessed of Bobby’s trained memory for faces, could have failed to recognize that strange, gnome-like figure and face—once seen, never to be forgotten. Bobby, though without much enthusiasm, said at once:
“Why, hullo, Wayling. It’s a long time since I saw you.”
“Not since we both went down,” agreed Wayling, who inci-dentally had not “gone down,” but been “sent down,” as Bobby well remembered. “Dear old St. Barnabas,” Wayling went on, still holding Bobby’s hand in a warm and friendly grasp. “Best college ever. Don’t talk to me about Balliol, All Souls, the House—you were there, weren’t you?”
“No. They wouldn’t have me,” Bobby said, managing at last to release his hand from the other’s clinging grasp; and he named his own college, libellously asserted to have the lowest standard of admission in all Oxford.
“Of course, of course,” declared Wayling. “I remember now. Ah, well, we can’t all be Barnabites. But I ought to be congratulating you. I saw in the papers you were a big bug now in the police. Bit of a surprise to find an old pal high up in the cops. Nice to know there’s a friend at court, though, if you want one.”
“Let’s hope it won’t be wanted,” Bobby remarked with a sub-acid tone that Wayling, quick in the uptake as a cat after a mouse, did not fail to notice.
“Now, don’t tell me,” he remonstrated, “you still remember that old pack of lies about me and the empty till at the ‘Fox and Grapes.’ I did make a bit of a fool of myself over that barmaid, but the little brute took it out of me good and proper with all those lies she told. Oh, well, that’s over and done with, and I had my lesson. Yes, yes, I had my lesson and I’ve profited by it. Dine with me to-night? I’m staying at the Midwych Central.”
Bobby said it was very kind of Wayling, but Olive, his wife, would be expecting him, and he had some paper work to see to that he would have to take home. Wayling said they must arrange a dinner some other time. Unluckily, he was only in Midwych for a day or two and didn’t know when, if ever, he would be back.
“If you take this new job on, though,” he added, “we might fix up an evening somewhere, if you think Mrs. Owen would like that. I’m only a poor, solitary bachelor with a couple of rooms off Park Lane, so it’ll have to be one of the cook shops—I prefer the Savoy myself.”
“What new job do you mean?” Bobby asked suspiciously.
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Wayling asked, and laughed again, a pleasant, jolly, slightly embarrassed laugh. “Perhaps I oughtn’t to have said anything. You’re going to be offered a Deputy Assistant Commissionership at the Yard.”
“Rubbish,” said Bobby. “Where did you get that cock-and-bull yarn?”
Wayling threw back that enormous head of his and laughed once more.
“Dear old boy,” he said. “Never you mind how I know. You just wait and see. It’s over this Bain murder they want you.”
“Deputy Assistant Commissioners don’t take on murder cases,” Bobby said sharply.
“They do, if they are Bobby Owen and the murder is the Bain murder,” Wayling asserted smilingly; and his smile was one that somehow managed to transform his ill-formed, twisted features with an odd and baffling charm. “Just as Deputy Chief Constables don’t take on murder cases unless they happen to be Bobby Owen, and even then they have to leave the administrative side to others just a bit at times.”
This was a thrust that went home. Bobby knew, remembered, that Wayling had had the reputation of knowing all the secrets of everyone in Oxford, from dons to freshmen, with most of the citizens of the town thrown in. An exaggeration, no doubt, as was certainly the story that he was always hidden under every separate dinner table everywhere every night. Nevertheless, it was the case that somehow or another he managed to pick up every bit of gos-sip in the whole University. One explanation put forward was that all the women he met always told him everything within five minutes of their first meeting. Another exaggeration, no doubt, but not such a wild one this time. Anyhow, somehow or another, though the man was a complete stranger in the town, he had apparently already managed to get wind of recent Watch Committee criticism. Bobby looked at him sourly, but made no comment, be-yond saying briefly that he must be getting back to his office.
“I’ve an appointment, too,” declared Wayling. “Bit late for it. Any chance of getting a taxi, I wonder? They seem as rare here as in town. Well, awfully glad to meet an old pal again,” and as he said this his deep, rich voice was vibrant with emotion. As they were shaking hands, he added: “By the way, old man, can you change me a pound note?”
As he spoke he produced, not without a certain flourish, five brand new one-pound notes. “Just got them from the bank,” he said, “and I haven’t another penny in the whole wide world. No change where I lunched and the tip took my last coin.”
Bobby hesitated. The story might be true. Change was in short supply—shorter than ever now peace had caught the world on one foot and sent the world reeling with the shock. He fumbled in his pocket and produced a little silver. In a friendly, detached tone—that voice of his could convey every mood almost as clearly as print—Wayling said:
“Oh, don’t bother if it’s going to clean you out, too. I didn’t want to have to offer a taxi-man a pound note. Most of them don’t seem to know what change means. Five bob will do me. Let you have it back as soon as I can get to the Midwych Central Hotel—send the porter chap round with it.”
Somehow, without Bobby quite knowing how, two half-crowns got themselves transferred from his hand to Wayling’s pocket. Wayling said “Thanks awfully,” waved a gay farewell and disappeared. Bobby walked on in thoughtful mood, and when he reached his office picked up the ’phone.
“Hullo. Is that the Midwych Central Hotel?” he asked, connec-tion made. “Is Mr. Alexander Wayling staying with you?”
The voice at the other end of the line said it would inquire. A moment or two later the voice said, No, no one of that name was staying at the hotel. Were they to expect the gentleman?
Bobby said he didn’t think so. Probably Mr. Wayling was staying somewhere else, and thank you very much. Therewith he hung up, reflected that Wayling was running true to form, that certainly the Deputy Assistant Commissionership at Scotland Yard was merely a fairy tale, meant to facilitate the transfer of that five shillings most certainly now due to be written off as a total loss.
“But he had five one-pound notes all right, brand new, too, as if they had really just come from the bank,” mused Bobby and before he turned to his work, murmured, half aloud: “I wonder where he got them from?”
As the old books used to say, generally in italics, and rightly so: Little he knew.