Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
A whistle blew; jolting slightly, the big posters on the hoardings took themselves off rearwards—and with sudden acceleration, like a thrust in the back, the electric train moved out of Borleston Junction, past the blurred radiance of the tall lamps in the marshalling-yard, past the diminishing constellations of the town’s domestic lighting, and so out across the eight-mile isthmus of darkness at whose further extremity lay Clough. Borleston had seen the usual substantial exodus, and the few remaining passengers—whom chance had left oddly, and, as it turned out, significantly distributed—were able at long last to stretch their legs, to transfer hats, newspapers and other impedimenta from their laps to the vacated seats beside them, and for the first time since leaving Victoria to relax and be completely comfortable. Mostly they were somnolent at the approach of midnight, but between Borleston and Clough none of them actually slept. Fate had a conjuring trick in preparation, and they were needed as witnesses to it.
The station at Clough was not large, nor prepossessing, nor, it appeared, much frequented; but in spite of this, the train, once having stopped there, evinced an unexpected reluctance to move on. The whistle’s first confident blast having failed to shift it, there ensued a moment’s offended silence; then more whistling, and when that also failed, a peremptory, unintelligible shouting. The train remained inanimate, however, without even the usual rapid ticking to enliven it. And presently Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford, lowered the window of his compartment and put his head out, curious to know what was amiss.
Rain was falling indecisively. It tattooed in weak, petulant spasms against the station roof, and the wind on which it rode had. a cutting edge. Wan bulbs shone impartially on slot-machines, timetables, a shuttered newspaper-kiosk; on governmental threat and commercial entreaty; on peeling green paint and rust-stained iron. Near the clock, a small group of men stood engrossed in peevish altercation. Fen eyed them with disapproval for a moment and then spoke.
“Broken down?” he enquired unpleasantly. They swivelled round to stare at him. “Lost the driver?” he asked.
This second query was instantly effective. They hastened up to him in a bunch, and one of them—a massive, wall-eyed man who appeared to be the Station-master—said: “For God’s sake, sir,
‘aven’t seen ‘im, ‘ave you?”
“Seen whom?” Fen demanded mistrustfully.
“The motorman, sir. The driver.”
“No, of course I haven’t,” said Fen. “What’s happened to him?”
“‘E’s gorn, sir. ‘Ooked it, some’ow or other. ‘E’s not in ‘is cabin, nor we can’t find ‘im anywhere on the station, neither.”
“Then he has absconded,” said Fen, “with valuables of some description, or with some other motorman’s wife.”
The Station-master shook his head—less, it appeared, by way of contesting this hypothesis than as an indication of his general perplexity—and stared helplessly up and down the deserted platform. “It’s a rum go, sir,” he said, “and that’s a fact.”
“Well, there’s one good thing about it, Mr. Maycock,” said the younger of the two porters who were with him. “‘E can’t ‘ave got clear of the station, not without being seen.”
The Station-master took some time to assimilate this, and even when he had succeeded in doing so, did not seem much enlightened by it. “‘Ow d’you make that out, Wally?” he enquired.
“Well, after all, Mr. Maycock, the place is surrounded, isn’t it?”
“Surrounded, Wally?” Mr. Maycock reiterated feebly. “What d’you mean, surrounded?”
Wally gaped at him. “Lord, Mr. Maycock, didn’t you know? I thought you’d ‘a’ met the Inspector when you came back from your supper.”
“Inspector?” Mr. Maycock could scarcely have been more bewildered if his underling had announced the presence of a Snab or a Greevey. “What Inspector?”
“Scotland Yard chap,” said Wally importantly. “And ‘alf a dozen men with ‘im. They’re after a burglar they thought’d be on this train.”
Mr. Maycock, clearly dazed by this melodramatic intelligence, took refuge from his confusion behind a hastily contrived breastwork of outraged dignity. “And why,” he demanded in awful tones, “was I not
formed of this ‘ere?”
“You ‘ave bin informed,” snapped the second porter, who was very old indeed, and who appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking. “You ‘ave bin informed. We’ve just informed yer.”
Mr. Maycock ignored this. “
you would be so kind,” he said in a lofty manner, “it would be ‘elpful for me to know at what time these persons of ‘oom you are speaking put in an appearance ‘ere.”
“About twenty to twelve, it’d be,” said Wally sulkily. “Ten minutes before this lot was due in.”
“And it wouldn’t ‘ave occurred to you, would it” -here Mr. Maycock bent slightly at the knees, as though the weight of his sarcasm was altogether too much for his large frame to support comfortably—”to ‘ave a dekko in my room and see if I was ‘ere?
no. I’m only the Station-master, that’s all I am.”
“Well, I’m very sorry, Mr. Maycock,” said Wally, in a tone of voice which effectively cancelled the apology out, “but I wasn’t to know you was back, was I? I told the Inspector you was still at your supper in the village.”
At this explanation, Mr. Maycock, choosing to overlook the decided resentment with which it had been delivered, became magnanimous. “Ah well, there’s no great ‘arm done, dare I say,” he pronounced; and the dignity of his office having by now been adequately paraded, he relapsed to the level of common humanity again. “Burglar, eh? Was ‘e on the train? Did they get ‘im?”
Wally shook his head. “Not them. False alarm, most likely. They’re still ‘angin’ about, though.” He jerked a grimy thumb towards the exit barrier. “That’s the Inspector, there.”
Hitherto, no one had been visible in the direction indicated. But now there appeared, beyond the barrier, a round, benign, clean-shaven face surmounted by a grey Homburg hat, at which Fen bawled “Humbleby!” in immediate recognition. And the person thus addressed, having delivered the injunction “Don’t
from here, Millican” to someone in the gloom of the ticket-hall behind him, came on to the platform and in another moment had joined them.
He was perhaps fifty-five: small, as policemen go, and of a compact build which the neatness of his clothes accentuated. The close-cropped greying hair, the pink affable face, the soldierly bearing, the bulge of the cigar-case in the breast pocket and the shining brown shoes—these things suggested the more malleable sort of German
to see him close at hand, however, was to see the grey eyes—bland, intelligent, sceptical—which effectively belied your first, superficial impression, showing the iron under the velvet. “Well, well,” he said. “Well, well, well. Chance is a great thing.”
“What,” said Fen severely, his head still projecting from the compartment window like a gargoyle from a cathedral tower, “is all this about a burglar?”
“And you will be the Station-master.” Humbleby had turned to Mr. Maycock. “You were away when I arrived here, so I took the liberty—”
I wasn’t, sir,” Mr. Maycock interrupted, anxious to vindicate himself. I was in me office all the time, only these lads didn’t think to look there… ‘Ullo, Mr. Foster.” This last greeting was directed to the harassed Guard, who had clearly been searching for the missing motorman. “Any luck?”
“Not a sign of im,” said the Guard sombrely. “Nothing like this ‘as ever ‘appened on one of
“It is ‘Inkson, isn’t it?”
The Guard shook his head. “No. Phil Bailey.”
“Ah. Bailey sometimes took over from ‘Inkson on this run.” Here the Guard glanced uneasily at Fen and Humbleby. “It’s irregular, o’ course, but it don’t do no ‘arm as I can see. Bailey’s ‘ome’s at Bramborough, at the end o’this line, and ‘e’d ‘ave to catch this train any’ow to get to it, so ‘e took over sometimes when ‘Inkson wanted to stop in Town… And now this ‘as to ‘appen. There’ll be trouble, you mark my words.” Evidently the unfortunate Guard expected to be visited with a substantial share of it.
“Well, I can’t ‘old out no longer,” said Mr. Maycock. “I’ll ‘ave to ring ‘Eadquarters straight away.” He departed in order to do this, and Humbleby, who still had no clear idea of what was going on, required the others to enlighten him. When they had done this: “Well,” he said, “one thing’s certain, and that is that your motorman hasn’t left the station. My men are all round it, and they had orders to detain anyone who tried to get past them.”
At this stage, an elderly business man, who was sharing the same compartment with Fen and with an excessively genteel young woman of the sort occasionally found behind the counters of Post Offices, irritably enquired if Fen proposed keeping the compartment window open all night. And Fen, acting on this hint, closed the window and got out on to the platform.
“None the less,” he said to Humbleby, “it’ll be as well to interview your people and confirm that Bailey
left. I’ll go the rounds with you, and you can tell me about your burglar.”
They left the Guard and the two porters exchanging theories about Bailey’s defection, and walked along the platform towards the head of the train. “Goggett is my burglar’s name,” said Humbleby. “Alfred Goggett. He’s wanted for quite a series of jobs, but for the last few months he’s been lying low, and we haven’t been able to put our hands on him. Earlier this evening, however, he was spotted in Soho by a plain-clothes man named, incongruously enough, Diggett…”
“…And Diggett chased him to Victoria. Well, you know what Victoria’s like. It’s rather a rambling terminus, and apt to be full of people. Anyway, Diggett lost his man there. Now, about mid-day today one of our more reliable narks brought us the news that Goggett had a hide-out here in Clough, so this afternoon Millican and I drove down here to look the place over. Of course the Yard rang up the police here when they heard Goggett had vanished at Victoria; and the police here got hold of me; and here we all are. There was obviously a very good chance that Goggett would catch this train. Only unluckily he didn’t.”
“No one got off here?”
“No one got off or on. And I understand that this is the last train of the day, so for the time being there’s nothing more we can do. But sooner or later, of course, he’ll turn up at his cottage here, and then we’ll have him.”
“And in the meantime,” said Fen thoughtfully, “there’s the problem of Bailey.”
“In the meantime there’s that. Now let’s see…”
It proved that the six damp but determined men whom Humbleby had culled fiom the local constabulary had been so placed about the station precincts as to make it impossible for even a mouse to have left without their observing it; and not even a mouse, they stoutly asserted, had done so. Humbleby told them to stay where they were until further orders, and returned with Fen to the down platform.
“No loophole there,” he pronounced. “And it’s an easy station to—um—invest. If it had been a great sprawling place like Borleston, now, I could have put a hundred men round it, and Goggett might still have got clear… Of course, it’s quite possible that Borleston’s where he did leave the train.”
“One thing at a time,” said Fen rather peevishly. “It’s Bailey we’re worrying about now—not Goggett.”
“Well, Bailey’s obviously still on the station. Or else somewhere on the train. I wonder what the devil he thinks he’s up to?”
“In spite of you and your men, he must have been able to leave his cabin without being observed.” They were passing the cabin as Fen spoke, and he stopped to peer at its vacant interior. “As you see, there’s no way through from it into the remainder of the train.”
Humbleby considered the disposition of his forces, and having done so: “Yes,” he admitted, “he could have left the cabin without being seen; and for that matter, got to shelter somewhere in the station buildings.”
“Weren’t the porters on the platform when the train came in?”
“No. They got so overwrought when I told them what I was here for—the younger one especially—that I made them keep out of the way. I didn’t want them gaping when Goggett got off the train and making him suspicious—he’s the sort of man who’s quite capable of using a gun when he finds himself cornered.”
“He was in his office—asleep, I suspect. As to the Guard, I could see his van from where I was standing, and he didn’t even get out of it till he was ready to start the train off again…” Humbleby sighed. “So there really wasn’t anyone to keep an eye on the motorman’s doings. However, we’re bound to find him: he can’t have left the precincts. I’ll get a search-party together, and we’ll have another look—a systematic one, this time.”
Systematic or not, it turned out to be singularly barren of results. It established one thing only, and that was, that beyond any shadow of doubt the missing motorman was not anywhere in, on or under the station, nor anywhere in, on or under his abandoned train.