a two-parter

This one is called THE AFFAIR OF THE CLOCKWORK TOY, heavily inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.  I present to you this week the first episode, and next week the episode in which a person is killed and the mystery begins.  To find out who did the killing will be much more difficult…

LINK TO EPISODE TWO

Episode One: A Dinner Party

There were eight of us sat around the grand dining table of Captain James Turnbull, late of the RAF. Stout of frame and ruddy of cheek, Captain Turnbull looked a man who could toast your health with one hand and box your ears with the other. What he lacked in height he made up for in girth but, although nudging sixty, he had not yet run to fat. He was solidly built, with a barrel chest straining at the buttons of his waistcoat, his knife and fork engulfed in fists the size of prize hams. Judging by the enthusiasm with which he attacked his beef, he was a man of strong appetites, appetites for life, for love – but mainly for a good roast.

To Turnbull’s right sat his close friend and neighbour, Mr Owen Cooper, a rather bland gentleman who managed the local railway station in Crawston. Where Turnbull was stout, Cooper was portly. Where the Captain was full-faced, his friend was jowly, the jowls being covered in sparse bristles. Cooper would never grow a full beard. Turnbull, on the other hand, was already showing a blue shadow and I was sure that, left to his own devices and deprived of razor and foam, he could soon grow a magnificent mane. Both of them strained the buttons on their waistcoats, however, and both took pleasure in their food.

To Turnbull’s left sat his godchild, Miss Genevieve Peckerel. A dazzling creature, she had captivated the room when she had swept to her place at the appointed hour. She wore a stunning dress which succeeded in being both modest and provocative at the same time – modest in cut, but provocative in colour. The dress was a deep and decadent shade of red, warning and enticing at once. There was not a woman in England who would not be content with that dress and Miss Peckerel’s figure, but our hostess had also been blessed with perfect complexion and a smile that could incapacitate a man at fifty paces, and could probably kill one at five.

To the right of Mr Cooper sat his wife, a woman of surpassing blandness who, as far as I could tell, did absolutely nothing of interest – though she did have the commendable look of one who kept an immaculate house. Underneath her thinning hair glowed a pair of bright eyes that flitted left and right in a nervous manner. Judging from the speed at which her food was disappearing, however, I judged that she was anything but nervous.

In the corner, next to Mrs Cooper and as far away from Miss Peckerel as physically possible, a man glowered into his roast beef. I had a suspicion that the glower, far from being a reaction to any circumstance in particular, was, rather, seared onto the man’s face by force of habit. He was not a tall man, even by normal standards – I say ‘normal standards’ because I am six feet tall when I stand up straight – but he was wiry as a coiled spring: wiry build, wiry, black hair. He was possessed of an intensity which pervaded his every action. When he cut his meat, he severed it, and threatened to wound the plate into the bargain. His fork was a spear, and his chewing could have reduced a castle to dust. I was surprised when his wine glass made it from his mouth to the table without shattering into a thousand pieces, although this would admittedly have caused a problem for the young gentleman, as his glass was empty as often as it was full.

My own neighbours at the dining table could not have been more different. I was sat in the corner opposite the glowering man, whom I had not met before, but whom I soon came to know as Mr Nicholas Grimsby. To my right, however, was a man who not only had the singular good fortune to be sitting next to the radiant Miss Peckerel, but also had the most astounding collection of stories I had ever heard. Any disbelief I might have had at first was soon willingly suspended as he wove tale after tale, some for my private entertainment and some for the amusement of the table. This man went by the name of Mr Henri DeLongue.

He was a slender man, and graceful. I could tell even by the way he lifted his fork that he could have graced any ballroom in Europe. His eyes were grey, and they never blinked. He had an immaculate pencil moustache. The creases on his clothes were sharp enough to cut you. His dark hair was effortlessly stylish, something which I had given up trying to achieve long before the army gave me a short back-and-sides, the cut which I had favoured ever since. The only similarity between myself and the man to my right was that we parted our hair on the same side: the left.

To my left, on the short edge of the table opposite Turnbull, was The Reverend Thomas O’Leary. He was a man of solemn countenance, practically dripping with dignity in every word and gesture. He was taller even than me, but so thin he appeared to be made of twigs, or perhaps string, like an old puppet I used to have. His hair was jet black and wild, in direct contrast to my sandy blonde side-parting. His was a face of striking features, very handsome – if a little gaunt – and the strong bone structure was plain to see.

Under normal circumstances, his conversation would have been most interesting, however O’Leary was sharing the table with Henri DeLongue, next to whom the keenest wit in England would appear blurred and fuzzy by comparison.

As to what we were doing sat around the table, at that moment I could not have told you. In fact, I was personally rather amazed to be there at all. All of the guests were known to Turnbull except for DeLongue and myself, though we had met recently at a meeting of clockwork lovers and collectors in London. Being somewhat fascinated by clockwork, I had decided to take the train there, and had been very pleasantly surprised to make the acquaintance of Captain Turnbull himself, who, as any lover of clockwork knows, owns the largest collection of clockwork toys in the Western world. Evidently my conversation must have pleased the man, for I received an invitation to attend dinner at his house before the train reached Reading.

If DeLongue was surprised at his invitation, he had never shown it. Turnbull and I had agreed to take the six-forty train from Paddington together, but by the time I met him there I had made the acquaintance of, and become fascinated by, the man DeLongue. We had come to the train station in the same taxi and I had at once fallen under his spell. By chance, DeLongue was to ride the same train, and of course, after a mere ten minutes in a carriage with DeLongue, Turnbull had extended his dinner invitation one plate further. But back to the present.

There were eight of us sat around the table, and we were currently tucking into a delicious side of beef, served of course with horseradish and roast potatoes. Colour was available in the form of various vegetables, though I personally don’t spare the time for such things. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a carnivore, and I had spurned my greens in favour of extra plate space for potatoes and meat. I do, however, have a hearty appetite, and at this point in my recollection I was setting to with great enthusiasm, whilst at the same time trying to remain on my best of behaviour around this most distinguished company.

Reverend O’Leary was in the middle of telling me about his days in the Cambridge drama society, but I was rather more interested in the conversation of Miss Peckerel, who was busy giving insider information to DeLongue.

“James is fast friends with the Coopers,” she was saying, “He’s known them for years, and he goes to church with them every Sunday without fail.”

I made some noises to the Reverend to simulate the act of listening, whilst at the same time straining my ears backward to catch snippets of DeLongue’s conversation. Finally, however, the effort became too much for me, and as I feared my eyes would soon cross from the exertion, I resignedly gave my full attention back to O’Leary, who was now bemoaning the state of repair of his church. Grimsby looked up from his dinner long enough to shoot a comment at him.

“You’ll fall off that ladder one of these days.”

I was astounded. “You repair the church yourself?”

“Needs must, I’m afraid. There is no money to repair it, neither for materials, nor for the work. I have become rather adept at fixing up holes with whatever I can find, but they’re really only stopgap measures.”

“Nonsense, Reverend!”

Our exchange had caught the attention of Miss Peckerel, who beamed down the table at O’Leary, dazzling all in her path.

“Nonsense,” she repeated, “That church of yours is more waterproof than it has been in decades, according to the parish folk, and I declare it is warmer, too.”

“Thank you, Miss Peckerel, but all the same, I should dearly like to have a few hundred pounds to get the job done properly.”

“When I’m gone, if your church is still standing, you shall have that, and more!” said Turnbull, and then chuckled as he saw the shocked expression on the priest’s face.

“Oh, James, don’t be so macabre!”

“Genevieve, everyone I care for will be looked after.” His eyes narrowed slightly and the laughter fell from his voice. “Even if they can’t look after themselves.”

A silence fell over the table. Grimsby drained his glass of wine again and signalled for a refill. The sound of pouring wine sounded absurdly loud in the stillness that prevailed, and I fervently wished for someone to fill it, but my mind was blank, and Miss Peckerel was looking aghast at her godfather. The incredibly bland Coopers were more likely to cause a silence than to fill one, but there was one man at the table who was more than capable of rescuing dinner.

“There are times when even looking after yourself seems almost impossible, Captain Turnbull,” DeLongue began, and promptly launched into an anecdote about his adventures in the Swiss Alps, through which he had trekked alone. When asked why, he replied simply ‘For love’, though love of what, or for whom, he would not say.

Soon the unpleasantness was forgotten, cleared away to make room for dessert. Turnbull rose from the table, and DeLongue and I turned toward him, expecting him to perhaps make a speech or to propose a toast, however he did neither. He simply turned on his heel and left the room.

“Don’t worry, Mr Falconer,” said Mrs Cooper, upon seeing the expression of shock on my face, “It’s just his custom.”

“Excuse me, Mrs Cooper, but what custom?” asked my friend DeLongue.

“You mustn’t tell half a story, Mary!” Mr Cooper chided gently, kissing his wife on the cheek. It occurred to me that the two Coopers, each no more interesting than a hessian sack, in each other had perhaps found a perfect love. “It’s a little custom of James’s,” he droned. “He insists on bringing the dessert in himself, as his father used to do. The coffee is also his responsibility. He’ll probably dismiss the help after the dessert is on the plates and everyone’s topped up with wine. I wonder what he will bring us…”

I realised I was nodding. My eyelids had grown dangerously heavy under the combined assault of both Mr and Mrs Cooper’s voices, which surely could be used in hospitals as a soporific. I was rescued by Miss Peckerel, who had decided to cast her line for another of DeLongue’s anecdotes.

“Have you ever been to America, Mr DeLongue?”

“Certainly I have, Miss Peckerel.”

And he was off again. This time the tale was about prospecting for oil in the south of America, striking instead gold. Grimsby snorted and drained his glass again. Signalling for a refill, he stood and left the room. Miss Peckerel’s eyes never left him. In that moment, I finally answered the question I had been asking myself all evening – what was the intense and quite unpleasant man in the corner doing here? Now I had my answer.

“Yes, Mr Falconer.” Miss Peckerel’s voice jerked me from my reverie.

“Yes, Miss Peckerel?”

“Yes, Mr Falconer. It was I who invited Nicholas.”

“You certainly are perceptive, madam.”

“It was written on your face quite clearly, sir. I was the one who invited Nicholas, and Captain James Turnbull, my legal guardian, was the one who seated him far away in the coldest corner of the room. He does not approve of Nicholas’ courtship of me.”

O’Leary tried to keep the peace.

“Miss Peckerel, are you sure this is appropriate?”

“Of course it is. James has done nothing to hide his dislike of Nicholas; I believe I am justified in spelling it out for our guests. James thinks Nicholas a fortune hunter!”

“I say!” I couldn’t help myself.

“After my parents’ death on the Nile, my protection passed to James, along with their money in trust, to be conferred on me upon my marriage.”

“I say!” I was becoming as bland as the Coopers.

“But I love him. He’s brilliant, and passionate, and he will soon propose, I’m sure of it. And when he does, I will accept, and that will be that.”

I felt nothing but pity for this spirited young woman, who would soon commit what I felt was an extreme folly. I hoped that my face did not betray me again, for it had been shown to be traitorously expressive. Miss Peckerel began talking to DeLongue again.

“Did you know, he can tell how fast a horse is just by looking at it?”

Their conversation continued, though this time I determined not to listen, as I was sure it would upset me further. Not long after, Turnbull re-entered the room, bearing a delicious-looking apple cake of a kind I hadn’t seen before.

“My word, it’s a Strudel!” exclaimed DeLongue.

“Indeed, Mr DeLongue! I should have known better than to think I could surprise a man like you with something new!” But he was chuckling as he said it. It seemed Turnbull was a man given to laughter, though I shared his concern for the bright young woman under his protection, and like him I was wary of the man in the cold corner.

A slice of the hot, sweet cake was placed on each of our plates, including the one before the empty chair of Nicholas Grimsby. Presently, he returned, winking at Miss Peckerel and mouthing ‘Too much wine’. As Miss Peckerel giggled and blushed into her napkin, I found myself wondering where the young woman’s taste in men had come from. I did not ponder the question for too long, however, for suddenly Mrs Cooper gave a start and whispered something to her husband, who patted her knee comfortingly.

“Do excuse me,” he announced, “I must check our room. My wife is convinced that I have left the door unlocked, and it is a peculiarity of hers that all doors must be locked.” He neatly folded his napkin, got up and strode out. As he walked past the window, I noticed that it had begun to rain, and I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m afraid I, too, am going through a crisis of confidence,” I said. “I came here by motorcar and I am now not at all sure whether I closed my windows or left them open. I’m afraid I must check or the consequences could be quite ruinous.”

Gazing longingly at the remaining portion of strudel, and full of regret as the warmth seeped out through the plate, I turned my back on the room and went to check my car. Of course, all the windows were fully closed, and thus my trip had done little more than rob me of warm dessert and make me very wet. I re-entered the house and walked past the staircase to the dining room, in time to see the Coopers descending. Mrs Cooper looked almost apologetic, though I couldn’t see what she had to apologise for.

“I had to make sure he did it properly,” she explained.

“Honestly, darling,” replied Mr Cooper, giving his wife’s shoulder a playful squeeze.

Back in the dining room, dessert was nearly over. I resumed eating my pie, surprised that there had been no perceptible cooling in the time in which I had been away. The servants had been dismissed, or at any rate were no longer there, and once again Grimsby had drained his glass.

Eventually, dessert was over, and it was announced that everyone should retire to the smoking room to enjoy cigarettes, pipe tobacco, or Turnbull’s fine cigars. Miss Peckerel requested that we wait for her to powder her nose – to Turnbull’s considerable consternation – but when O’Leary plopped his sleeve squarely in the apple sauce on his plate, it was of course necessary for him to immediately wash the offending fruit off (“More fool me for dismissing the help so early,” Turnbull had grumbled).

I decided to try my hand at anecdotage. My reasoning was sound: I had had my share of adventures, had seen the world as part of the British army, and had particularly excelled at the sport of boxing. The only thing I lacked, as I found out, was DeLongue’s skill at storytelling. Somehow, I managed to turn one of my greatest fights – my victory against the reigning champion, Bill Ramsey, a boxer of some renown – into a lethargic and bloodless tale of self-aggrandisation. I could not seem to draw my audience into my world, as a skilled fisherman slowly draws in his line, as DeLongue himself so effortlessly did. Rather, I seemed to recount endless facts in a vaguely chronological order until it seemed I was drowning in them.

In the end, DeLongue swooped in and rescued me as I floundered there, seamlessly steering the story from one single combat to another – from pugilism to the duel – in such a way that he saved my dignity as well as the evening’s entertainment. As it turned out, DeLongue spoke from experience: in France he had fenced for glory, and won no small amount, but in Monaco he had duelled for his very life when his pride had refused to let him back down. He was forced to meet his adversary at the break of dawn, and they had taken turns to shoot at each other with pistols.

“The trick, as I saw it,” he said, “was to make my opponent believe that I was somewhere I wasn’t, or that something somewhere else was me, in order that he shot at that, and not at my body, to which I had by that time become rather attached.”

“Did you manage it?” enquired the incisive mind of Mrs Cooper.

“I sit before you today, Mrs Cooper, unpierced by lead and steel.”

“I wish I had been there,” I said. “I should have liked to see a duel.”

“There were no others there, my dear Mr Falconer. Had you been there, you would have been my opponent, which would have been quite unfortunate for one of us.”

At that moment, O’Leary held the door open for Miss Peckerel, and they took their seats to savour the last of their wine. Turnbull, however, was growing visibly impatient, and it was soon necessary to drain the glasses and proceed to the smoking room. I wondered whether to tell DeLongue about my time in America, or the six-shooter in my pocket. Admittedly it was unsuitable for duelling, but it made a fair old bang when you pulled the trigger. I decided that there would be plenty of time for that later – the night was young!

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