Authors: Margery Allingham
Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia. Apart from the fact that it was a reprehensible sort of thing to do anyway, it was particularly unpleasant because they were friends and it was done for gain.
I knew them both. They and my brother George had been to a prep school together and had gone on to Layer in the same year. Dornford was a little chap with protruding, pale-blue eyes and a greater capacity for terror than any man I ever knew. He took medicine finally and, although he did get his degrees, never practised because he was not capable of it.
His brief periods of locum work were histories of disaster. Fear was ingrained in him, including a passionate terror of poverty, which was unfortunate, because his private means were less than three hundred pounds a year.
Fellowes was his exact opposite. He was a great heavy person, dark-skinned and powerful, and he had a way of going out after the thing he wanted which was positively frightening because of its energy.
He had about fifteen hundred pounds a year of his own and leaned towards an adventurous career.
Why he put up with Dornford no one ever really knew. My own opinion is that Dornford was put in his care at school, and looking after the terrified little creature became a habit with him.
Anyway, after they left school, Dornford was always dragging along behind Fellowes, sponging on him a little but too indeterminate a personality to be a serious nuisance.
Finally Fellowes actually grew to like him, or at any rate to depend upon him for company. All the same, how they came to go into the Australian bush together is not altogether clear.
Fellowes suddenly developed an interest in primitive tribal customs. He wanted to investigate them for himself, and he took Dornford with him, possibly because he happened to have had him staying with him at the time the expedition was planned, or perhaps he thought Dornford might conceivably be useful minding the medicine chest.
They set out from Adelaide one fine day and Fellowes never came back.
He died of snake-bite.
When he returned alone Dornford explained that he had not the necessary serum with him, and that, despite heroic efforts, his “poor friend had passed away’.
There was a considerable scandal at the time, largely due to a truly horrible story which the bearers brought back with them. It described Fellowes calling to his friend in his agony and Dornford sitting with his hands over his ears and his eyes closed while the beads of sweat rolled down his face.
After this someone who ought to have known thought he remembered that Dornford did have the serum with him, and altogether there was so much talk that he was lucky to scuttle back home to England without an inquiry.
There was trouble over here, too, when it turned out that before starting on the expedition Fellowes and Dornford had solemnly made wills in each other’s favour.
Dornford’s story was that Fellowes had known it was going to be dangerous and had insisted on the precaution “in case”. No one believed him, but no one wanted an open scandal, and Fellowes’ relatives were wealthy people.
Nearly everyone cut Dornford, though. He did not seem to care. He netted his inheritance and came to live in the village next to ours, which was unnecessary of him since there are so many other villages.
We used to see him about in our market town and, it being ridiculous to quarrel with a neighbour, we kept up a reserved acquaintance with him.
The first letter came to him from Melbourne. Jenkinsone, who had been at university with the two of them and who had corresponded in a dilatory way with him for some years, wrote one of his rare letters. It was a straggling epistle of the “do you remember…?” variety favoured by the lonely Englishman abroad.
One paragraph so rattled Dornford that he called on my brother to show it to him.
“By the way, I met old Bucky Fellowes in the street here to-day. He said he was prospecting, whatever that may mean. He was asking after you.”
Dornford was a bit green when he pointed to the final sentence and his pale eyes bulged horribly.
“Must have been some other chap, mustn’t it? he said. “Jenkinsone was a muddle-minded ass, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” we said dubiously, remembering him. “Yes, perhaps he was.”
Dornford went back to his old-world cottage reassured.
The second letter came from Colombo. Dornford did not show it to us for some days and when at last he did he was so nervous that he giggled hysterically all the time he talked.
“It’s from Mrs. Wentworth,” he said. “The wife of a Colonel my father used to know.”
We read it in silence. The postscript was interesting. “
P.S. We met such an interesting man on board ship. He seems to be an old friend of yours—a Mr. Buchanan Fellowes. He was asking after you.’
“Odd co—coincidence, isn’t it? giggled Dornford. “T—two people making a silly mistake like that? We buried Bucky, you know; buried him deep. It was under a great spreading tuberous plant. The branches were like snakes. I—I can see them now.”
He was rather beastly and George took him away and gave him a drink.
There was peace after this for nearly two months. Dornford had a small red car and we saw him about in it once or twice. He still looked a bit pallid, but then he was never a healthy type.
The third letter arrived one very hot June evening. We were having a party when Dornford rang asking my brother to go over immediately. George refused but promised to drop in later in the evening. Long before the appointed hour Dornford had arrived at our house. He hid in the study and George had to leave his guests and go in to him.
Because I was curious I wandered along myself some minutes later to find them both staring at a sheet of flimsy paper. Dornford looked as though he had been very sick and even George was disturbed.
The letter was from Dornford’s uncle. He was on a cruise in the Mediterranean and had written from Port Said.
“How small the world is!
“Walking along a foreign street, surrounded by every sort of nationality, caste and creed, who should I meet but a friend of yours. He recognised me from seeing me at a Speech Day at Layer more years ago than I care to remember.
“We exchanged cards—or rather I gave him mine. He was temporarily without, having been some time away from home. His name was Buchanan Fellowes. Wasn’t that friend of yours who died in Australia a Fellowes too? I did not like to ask him if it was a relative. He was asking after you.”
We soothed Dornford as best we could, but it was not easy.
“Bucky must have had a brother,” said George without conviction.
Dornford looked at him with a lop-sided smile and eyes blank with fear.
“He was the only son of his mother, and his father was d—d—dead,” he said.
We let him go home.
Naturally we did not forget him. There had been a dreadful note of urgency common to each letter which left itself firmly fixed in one’s mind.
George and I went over to the cottage the following morning, and spent an hour or so doing our clumsy best to cheer Dornford up.
“It’s a hoax,” I said, trying to sound convincing. “Someone’s trying to scare you… someone you knew in Australia.”
My voice trailed away as the miserable little creature dropped his face into his hands. George grimaced at me angrily, and we stood helplessly together looking around the prim little room furnished with the fake antiques and the little bits of Birmingham brass. It was one of those cottages in which the front door leads directly into the main room, so that when the postman called the letter fell directly on to the mat at our feet.
Dornford, who had put down his hands at the sound of the knock, sat staring at the grey envelope on the floor without attempting to pick it up. He was shaking all over, and his small insignificant face was utterly without expression.
I found to my astonishment that I was a little afraid of the letter myself It was George who retrieved it.
“I should read it,” he said, throwing it over to Dornford. “You’re getting jumpy and inclined to dramatise the thing. This may have nothing to do with the business at all.”
Dornford took the letter with fingers which curled.
“It’s from—my—old nurse,” he said. “She s a dear old—old—g-girl. I believe she’s g-genuinely fond of me.”
He was tearing the envelope to ribbons in his efforts to get it open, but the sight of the old-fashioned spidery writing seemed to cheer him considerably.
“She—she lives at Southampton,” he remarked absently.
“Southampton?” I echoed sharply, and wished I had bitten my tongue out.
Dornford goggled at me. “Southampton,” he whispered. “Southampton. Oh my God, that’s where he’d land. Read it, George. Read it aloud.”
It was an uncomfortable moment, and George took the sheet of paper and cleared his throat rather noisily before he began. I have never heard him read so badly.
It was a very ordinary affectionate note until halfway down the second page, when the passage we had all half-expected occurred.
“I must tell you, Mr. Johnny; who do you think I met in the street this morning but young Mr. Bucky Fellowes. He seemed very pleased to see me, but would not come in, although of course I asked him to. I must say he did not look at all well, in fact I was surprised to see him up and about when he looked so queer. But he tells me it’s not a healthy part at all where he’s been so I expect that’s it. He was asking after you.”
Dornford tottered over to George’s side and looked over his shoulder.
“Yesterday’s date,” he said huskily. “Yesterday in Southampton. To-day—where?”
We were terribly afraid he was going out of his mind. He barricaded himself in. the cottage, and in spite of our protestations built a fire and crouched over it, although it was July. He was terribly cold, he said.
George did his best with him.
“Look here, Dornford,” he said at last in a determined effort to hang on to sanity at all costs, “there must be a perfectly logical explanation for all this. l’ll go down to Southampton tonight and see the old lady. Either she’s made a mistake, or she’s had the story put up to her. I say, why don’t you come with me?”
Dornford was too terrified to set foot outside the house, however, and in the end George did not go either, for the fifth letter came by the evening post. It was from a girl we all knew, and there is no need to give her name. Only one paragraph mattered.
“I saw Bucky Fellowes in Bond Street this morning. It was marvellous to see the old man again after all these years. He has altered terribly, of course, but a stretch at home will put him right.
“I was so surprised to see him (some idiot told me he was dead) that I am afraid I may have been a little offhand with him. You know how one is when one’s flustered. If you see him, give him all my love and tell him to look me up. I’ve never forgotten him. He was asking after you.”
Dornford had one more letter. It came while George was with him on the following day. It was a note from Andrews, landlord of The Feathers. It came by hand, and was to the point.
Dear Sir, There is a gentleman here asking for your address. His name is Mr. B. Fellowes. Would you like me to send him up? Yours faithfully, B. Andrews, prop.”
Dornford began to gibber, and to soothe him, George went back to The Feathers with the bearer to interview the practical joker. He was not there. Andrews had left him in the parlour and could only suppose that he must have gone out. He was a grey sort of gentleman, he said.
We never saw Dornford again, at least not alive. He was lying on his face on his own hearthrug when George got back. Old Meadows, our local doctor who did the P.M., said his heart simply stopped.
We were all very shocked, of course, hut not deeply grieved or brokenhearted. Dornford was not a lovable soul in life, and death did not make him any more attractive. He was buried in the village cemetery. A more quiet, unobtrusive ceremony was never performed. There was not even an announcement in the local paper, let alone the London ones.
There Dornford’s story should have ended except for one little thing which was curious. Two days after the funeral I had a note from Maisie Fielding, my scatter-brained fashion-artist friend. She was over from her home in Paris for one of her brief London visits. After a well-nigh undecipherable letter about nothing at all she added a postscript:
“Coming down the Haymarket, my dear, who do you think I’ve just seen?—Clinging together as usual. Bucky was in front, striding along with his friend clutching his coat tails. It was no use trying to stop them. They seemed to be in a terrible hurry. Heaven knows where they were going.”
“Benedick,” murmured Tadema, just loudly enough for the cadence of his fine voice to be audible all round the dressing room. The intonation did not quite satisfy his fastidious ear.
“Benedick,” he repeated, giving the word this time a sadness and a certain pride.
Then, with an assumption of carelessness which could have been only for his personal benefit, since he was entirely without other audience, he took up the copy of the illustrated weekly once more and studied afresh the full-page snapshot of himself and Chloe standing on the steps of her mother’s house in Brook Street.