Meet a new armchair detective George Drayton, 73 years old, retired book publisher, devotee of mystery stories as he becomes involved in his "first case." Old George Drayton's "armchair" is his favorite morning-bench or afternoon-bench in the private park of Knightswood Square; and in following George's park-bench private-eyeing you will get an intimate glimpse of an old (and old fashioned) Square in the heart of London in a story charmingly and lovingly told...|
JUST LIKE INSPECTOR MAIGRET
by VINCENT McCONNOR
The green park in the heart of London, to the passing eye, had not changed in half a century. But to George Drayton, born 73 years ago in a vast bedroom overlooking Knightswood Square, it had been altered in every possible way. Nothing was as it used to be.
He was the second person to enter the Square, fog or shine, every morning. Purdy, the gardener, was always the first, and Mrs. Heatherington the third. Actually she was fourth because her ancient Pekinese, Kwong Kwok, darted through the gate ahead of his mistress. That was how it had been for more than 30 years. Except that the gardener was never there on Sunday or bank holidays. On those days George Drayton was the first.
Every resident of the long rows of identical mansions surrounding Knightswood Square possessed a key which unlocked all the gates in the shoulder-high iron fence. A discreet sign near each gate warned that this was a private park.
George Drayton sniffed the morning air as he stepped out under the white-pillared portico and let the massive front door close itself behind him. He stood for a moment on the broad top step, eyes darting across the sunny Square in search of Purdy. A blue veil of smoke curled at the far northern corner. The gardener would be burning yesterday's accumulation of twigs and dead flowers. He daily raked every path and walk, picked up each fallen leaf and broken branch. Before dusk they were always neatly piled for burning the following morning.
The sun had climbed above the chimneys on the opposite side of the Square, dropping a curtain of haze across the elegant Regency facades so that all he could see was a blur of white columns against shadowed brick. It was going to be a pleasant August day. He would sit on his morning-bench under the protecting branches of the oak tree. There were several favorite benches he occupied, depending upon time of year and weather, but never the same bench, morning and afternoon.
George started down the shallow, marble steps to the sidewalk and was careful not to drop his books or leather cushion. He carried three books into the park every morning.
Today there was a new novel from his own publishing house and two Detective novels.
"Morning, sir." Fitch, the caretaker, squinted up the basement steps where he was polishing the brass hand-rail. "Another fine day, sir."
"Splendid." He kept walking or Fitch would come charging up the steps for a chat that could delay him at least ten minutes. On those unfortunate mornings when it was impossible to escape, Mrs. Heatherington and Kwong Kwok always reached the Square ahead of him.
He hesitated at the curb and peered up and down for any moving vehicles. There was only the milkman pulling his small cart at the far end of the street. George walked more briskly as he crossed to the narrow pavement which edged Knightswood Square. Reaching the curb he slowed his steps again and headed for the nearest gate. He rested the cushion and books on the gate post as he felt in his pocket for the key. There was always a moment of panic when he was unable to find it among the jumble of loose objects. Blast! He would have to go all the way back to his flat. Fitch couldn't help him. None of the caretakers were permitted to have keys. Then his fingers touched cold metal and a sigh of relief escaped from his lips.
George unlocked the gate and stepped into the Square. He had made it ahead of the Pekinese.
Before closing the gate he removed his key from the lock and dropped it back into his pocket. Then, in a final burst of speed, he headed for the shaded morning-bench under the oak tree. He placed his leather cushion on the bench and sat on it, arranging the books beside him.
As he filled his first pipe for the day he let his eyes wander over the familiar mansions around the Square. George knew who lived behind every window. He also knew who slept late, who was ill, dying, or convalescent, and which wife had left which husband. His charwoman, Mrs. Higby, kept him informed. Twice a day she reported all the latest news of Knightswood Square. At the moment she complained that nothing much was happening. There had been little worth talking about since last year's murder. That sort of thing didn't happen often enough to please Mrs. Higby.
She came to him for several hours, every day but Sunday, and also did daily work in two other mansions on the Square. Late morning, while he sat in the park, Mrs. Higby would straighten the flat and cook his lunch. He always made his own tea but she would return, after finishing her other jobs, and prepare his supper before catching a bus home to Putney.
Each day as she served his lunch and supper she reported, with relish, the news of the day. He looked forward to Mrs. Higby's gossip because, otherwise, he would never know what was going on behind his neighbors' windows. It had been exasperating, last winter, when she was kept to her bed with the 'flu. He had hired a woman through an agency but she had known nothing about the other residents of the Square. It was as though his morning and evening papers had not been delivered for three weeks.
Purdy wheeled an empty barrow past, without a word, touching an earthy finger to his leather cap. He never paused for conversation until late in the afternoon.
George watched as the gardener settled down to work, digging at the roots of a rosebush. Then he turned to look across to the south side of the Square, but there was no sign of Mrs. Heatherington and her Pekinese.
He checked his watch. 9:36. Six minutes late! Very likely packing for her holiday. She was taking an afternoon train from Victoria Station to Brighton where her daughter-in-law would be waiting to drive her across to Hove. The old lady spent two weeks every August with her son and his family in their pleasant Georgian house overlooking the distant seashore. Mrs. Higby had described the place to him, in detail, many times; she had heard all about it from her friend, Mrs. Price, who came in twice a week to char for Mrs. Heatherington.
A blur of movement caught his eye at the opposite side of the park and he turned his head to see someone on a bicycle. As his eyes adjusted to the distance he saw that it was Willie Hoskins who, once a month, washed every window facing the Square. Each flat had its regular day for the window cleaner.
Willie braked his bicycle in front of Number 26, hoisted it across the pavement, and propped it against the railing of the basement areaway. Then he lifted a bucket from the handlebar and carried it up the steps to the front door. George could see the flash of color as the sun caught in Willie's red hair, noticed the yellow rubber gloves tucked under the wide leather belt that circled his waist, the faded blue shirt and trousers as the boy went into the house. Boy? He was a married man of 23 with a wife who, according to Mrs. Higby, regularly had him up before a local magistrate on charges of drunkenness, nonsupport, and knocking her about.
The tenants of the Square frequently threatened to dispense with Willie's services, but he would disarm them with his great smile, flashing white teeth and tossing his curly head. It was suspected that Willie was not averse to tossing some of the ladies of Knightswood Square between washing windows. "He's a complete rascal, he is!" Mrs. Higby would say. "Always leave the front door wide when he does any windows where I be."
George turned to look, once again, for Mrs. Heatherington. She was just coming down the front steps of the mansion where she had a second-floor-front flat. The Pekinese was pulling on his leash, furious at being late, eager to get into the park. He yanked his mistress across the street and when she had unlocked the gate, sprang onto the grass jerking the leather leash out of her hand. The small beast darted to a favorite bush as the old lady closed the gate and dropped the key into her handbag. She crossed to the busy dog and bent stiffly to retrieve his leash. Then, finally, she stood for a moment surveying the Square.
That was when George Drayton looked in another direction. He had no idea whether Mrs. Heatherington could see him from that distance, but he didn't want her to think he was observing her. So he always looked away.
He noticed Willie Hoskins washing a window on the third floor of Number 26 Colonel Whitcomb's flat. A reflection of sunny sky gleamed from two panes he had already finished, but the others were dull with a month's accumulation of London soot. As he watched the window cleaner work he could hear the scuffling sound of Mrs. Heatherington's footsteps approaching down the walk, and as she came nearer he sensed the soft padding of the Pekinese. He turned to look and found that they were much closer than he had anticipated.
The Pekinese stalked past with majestic disdain but his mistress nodded and smiled. George Drayton bowed as usual. They never spoke. In fact, he had never heard Mrs. Heatherington's voice except when she talked to the dog.
George watched them head for the north gate. The old lady paused for a moment to speak to the gardener. Usually she only nodded to Purdy. Probably telling him that she was leaving on holiday. The gardener touched his cap as she continued on her way out of the Square, toward the Old Brompton Road. She would have final errands to do. Small presents for her grandchildren. Very likely a visit to her bank to withdraw money for the two-week holiday.
He wondered how old the dog might be. A Pekinese, named Kwong Kwok, had accompanied Mrs. Heatherington back from China, more than 30 years ago, when she returned to London after the death of her husband. Ever since there had been a Pekinese named Kwong Kwok, but it was impossible that the original dog could have survived so many years. The dog was a constant topic of conversation among the charwomen. To them and to George Drayton all Pekinese looked alike.
The first pram of the day, guided by a uniformed nanny, rolled into the Square as George picked up his small pile of books. Soon there would be dark clots of nursemaids and prams. Older children would avoid them and keep to the far side of the park where they could run and shout without glares and reprimands from the easily disturbed nannies.
He decided to put off reading the novel from Drayton House. Since his retirement, eight years ago, they had sent him a copy of each new book but, too frequently, he only became upset when he read the pretentious trash his nephew was publishing. No point in getting into a temper on such a beautiful day. He put the book aside and hesitated, deciding between the new Simenon and the new Christie. This would be a perfect morning to read about Paris. Simenon it would be...
As he turned to the first page he glanced across the Square to the dirt-encrusted windows of the third-floor flat where last year's murder had taken place. They still remained curtained. The Clarkson flat had never been rented. And the murder remained unsolved.
For two hours he lost himself in a rain-drenched Paris. Inspector Maigret sat in a small cafe, drinking Calvados, listening to neighborhood gossip as he watched a house across the street where a man had been murdered. Home for lunch with Madame Maigret in the apartment on the Boulevard Lenoir, then back through a cold drizzle to the cafe with its view of the bleak street.
Drinking toddy after toddy. Smoking his pipe...
George put down the book and filled his own pipe. Why couldn't he sit here and through pure deduction, like Inspector Maigret, solve last year's murder? Except that New Scotland Yard had put their best men on the Clarkson case and they had been unable to find any trace of the murderer.
As George lighted his pipe he noticed Mrs. Higby, parcels clutched in both arms, dart up the front steps of his building. Another hour and she would have the flat in order and his lunch waiting. Wouldn't she be surprised if he announced the name of the Clarkson murderer as he ate his noon chop!
He turned again to study the curtained windows of the murder flat. The victim, young Mrs. Clarkson, had been separated from her husband, but not divorced. Harry Clarkson had an alibi for every minute of the afternoon when his wife was killed. They had found her partially clothed body, sprawled across the bed, one silk stocking twisted around her throat and another stuffed into her mouth. The newspapers said that she had not been attacked sexually.
Clarkson had testified, at the coroner's inquest, that he had not seen his wife in several months. His solicitor sent her a monthly check and, regularly, tried to persuade her that a divorce would be wise; but she had refused to discuss such a possibility. Her char told the police that Mrs. Clarkson entertained many male visitors. She had never seen any of them but, every morning, she had to clean all the ashtrays. Unfortunately, she had no idea how much money Mrs. Clarkson kept in the flat, so there was no way of knowing whether there had been robbery as well as murder. The dead woman's purse, containing a few shillings, was found on her dressing table.
The police reported there had been no fingerprints. All the locals were questioned caretaker of the building, milkman, florist, laundryman, greengrocer, window cleaner, postman, delivery boy from the chemist shop. Every name in Mrs. Clarkson's address book had been traced and interrogated. Nobody knew anything.
A distant chime of bells brought George Drayton out of his dream of murder. Twelve o'clock. He would finish the Simenon after lunch. As he got to his feet he glanced, once again, at the Clarkson flat. Maigret would have solved the mystery easily, sitting here in the Square, looking up at those curtained windows. But he, George Drayton, didn't have a suspicion of an idea in spite of all the detective novels he had read and published.
He gathered up his books and leather cushion and headed for the gate. As he walked down the path he noticed that the gardener was already wolfing a sandwich, perched between the handles of his barrow.
George looked for Willie Hoskins but the window cleaner had disappeared. All the windows of Colonel Whitcomb's flat gleamed in the noon sunshine, reflecting bright rectangles of blue sky.
Instead of a chop there was cold salmon for lunch which he ate with appetite. He had all his meals at a small table in the study, surrounded by overflowing bookshelves and facing tall windows which overlooked the Square.
Mrs. Higby had her usual morning collection of gossip. "That young American couple what sublet Number 29 are leavin' for Paris next week."
Yes, Maigret would have solved the Clarkson murder without difficulty. Except that now the case was more than a year old and the clues would have long since vanished.
"The old gent in Number 12 is boozin' again. Mr. Mortan, the super, had to help him out of his cab last night. Carry him in to the lift an' up to his flat. I've a lovely bit of Leicester for you."
He studied the curtained windows of the Clarkson apartment, across the Square, as he ate the cheese. Curious that someone the caretaker or the dead woman's solicitor wouldn't have those unsightly windows washed.
"Mrs. Heatherington's off this afternoon on holiday. Her an' that ol' dog. This year she's told Mrs. Price, her char, not to come in while she's away. Paid her two weeks' wages, she did. Told her to have herself a bit of a rest. Such a fine lady, Mrs. Heatherington."
After lunch George placed his cushion on an afternoon-bench near the northwest corner of the Square, his back to the sun. He filled his pipe again and as he smoked he watched the renewed activity around him.
The gardener was pruning some kind of shrub near the rose arbor. Most of the noisy older children had not reappeared. Probably having an afternoon n nap. Several of the nannies had returned with their prams. Or were these different nursemaids? Some of them sat dozing in the warm sunlight.
He noticed that Willie Hoskins was now washing the windows of Mrs. Heatherington's flat. Odd that the old lady would want them cleaned the afternoon she was going away. Except that she had given her char a holiday, so there would be no one, these next two weeks, to let Willie Hoskins or anyone else into the flat.
George opened the Simenon and immediately returned to Paris. He became so absorbed in Maigret's progress that he was no longer aware of the others in the Square. Squealing children ran past him unheeded. The distant chime of bells on the quarter hours did not penetrate to his inner ear. He was conscious only of the sounds and voices of Paris, just as Maigret heard them.
A sudden penetrating scream, shrill and sharp, pulled him back to London and Knightswood Square.
Some of the nursemaids still sat beside their prams. The gardener was sweeping one of the walks. No one in the Square seemed to have noticed the scream he had heard. Or had he heard it? And was the sound human or animal? Perhaps one of the older children playing in the distance? The sound was not repeated.
George raised his eyes to the windows of Mrs. Heatherington's flat. Apparently the window cleaner had finished and gone on to his next job. One of the windows had been left open and the curtains had not been drawn together.
He took out his watch and checked the time. 4:27.
Mrs. Heatherington would have telephoned for a cab and left for Victoria Station long before this. Strange he hadn't noticed her departure. He remembered the scene from other years. Luggage brought down by the cabbie. Last of all, the small wicker hamper containing the Pekinese. He wondered if the old lady had forgotten to shut that window and close the curtains in the flurry of her departure.
He saw that he had finished all but a dozen or so pages of the Simenon. The puzzle in the detective novel was nearly solved.
...Maigret was moving quickly now. Each of the clues which had seemed so innocent before, had become ominous as the great French detective linked them together.
"Pardon me, sir."
George looked up from his book to see the gardener with a large bouquet of yellow roses in his hand.
"Told Mrs. Heatherington I'd have these for her. Fresh cut. So they'd last till she got to Hove."
"They're very beautiful."
"Said she'd get them before she took off. But I never seen her go."
"Didn't notice her leave, myself. I was reading."
"Guess I'll take them home to the Missus. S'prise the old girl." Purdy held the bouquet in front of him, carefully, as he started back up the walk.
George reopened the Simenon. As he read on, something seemed to shadow the final pages of the book. The printed words faded together and his thoughts wandered.
Why had Mrs. Heatherington forgotten the bouquet of roses?
Yellow roses. He had seen something else that was yellow.
And why hadn't she shut that window before she left on her holiday? And closed those curtains?
...Maigret had crossed the street and was climbing the stairs to the floor where the murder had taken place.
There had been no fingerprints in the Clarkson apartment because the murderer had, obviously, worn gloves.
It was a dog that had screamed. George was certain of it now.
Could it have been Mrs. Heatherington's dog? Why would the Pekinese make such a sound? It seldom even barked. Of course there were other dogs in the mansions around Knightswood Square.
...Maigret was now standing in the dark hall, outside the murder apartment, listening at the door.
Too bad Mrs. Clarkson had not owned a dog. Might have saved her life.
George glanced across to the curtained windows of the Clarkson flat again. Those dirty windows. Disgraceful.
George whirled to look again at Mrs. Heatherington's windows. Something wrong there!
The open window had been completely washed. All its panes sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. And the window next to it reflected blue sky in every rectangle of gleaming glass. But the other two windows were still dull with grime.
Half the windows of Mrs. Heatherington's flat had not been cleaned
Had Willie Hoskins seen something inside Mrs. Heatherington's living room? Something that had stopped him in the middle of his job?
And why the devil hadn't the old lady shut that window and closed those curtains before she left to catch her train?
Why had she gone off without that bouquet of roses the gardener had cut for her?
Something else yellow
The window cleaner's gloves! That was it! Willie Hoskins always wore yellow rubber gloves.
Why had the Pekinese screamed?
What possible reason
"Murder!" The terrible word exploded from his throat. "Murder!" He was on his feet, pointing up at Mrs. Heatherington's open window.
Everyone in Knightswood Square had turned to stare. Purdy was running toward him across the grass.
"Up there! Mrs. Heatherington! Hurry, man! Get the police!"
The gardener, without pausing to ask questions, raced toward the nearest gate, at the southern end of the Square.
George Drayton collapsed onto his leather cushion, exhausted and out of breath. All he would ever be able to remember of the next hours would be a blur of strangers.
Arrival of the first policeman.
Cars screeching to a stop.
Dark-suited men hurrying to Mrs. Heatherington's flat.
A clutter of curious people gathering on the sidewalk.
White-uniformed figures carrying something down the steps.
His bench surrounded. The dark-suited men. Polite questions. How did he know what had happened? What had he seen? Had he heard something? The dog? Questions ran together until they gave him a headache.
He finally managed to get home to the quiet of his flat where he stretched out gratefully on the sofa in his study...
Mrs. Higby wakened him. "You're a hero! Saved the old lady's life, you did! They say another hour an' she'd have been a goner. Just like her dog. Poor little beast. His head bashed in"
"Mrs. Heatherington? Is she"
"In hospital. They had to operate. But she's goin' to be fine. I just talked to Mrs. Price, her char, and the police told her. They say the old lady's money was stolen. What she took out of the bank for her holiday. Afraid your supper's goin' to be late this evenin.' "
The telephone rang.
Mrs. Higby hurried to snatch it from the desk. "Mr. Drayton's residence... What is it, love? What's happened now? ... Fancy that!" She turned to pass on her information. "It's me chum, Mrs. Price. They've caught Willie Hoskins! Drunk in a Chelsea pub. The old lady's money still in his pocket." Her eyes widened as she spoke into the phone again. "He didn't! Well, I never."
She turned back toward the sofa. "He's confessed to killin' Mrs. Clarkson last year. I always said he was a rascal."
George Drayton smiled. He had solved the Clarkson case. And he had done it without moving from his bench in Knightswood Square .
...Just like Inspector Maigret.