John Carr - The Reader Is Warned

PEGUIN BOOKS



THE READER IS WARNED


Carter Dickson

FIRST PUBLISHED 1939

PUBLISHBD IN PENGUIN BOOKS 1951


PART I

TWILIGHT

Concerning a Prophecy Made and Fulfilled


LETTER FROM MR LAWRENCE CHASE TO DR JOHN SANDERS

81, Soane Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields,

26th April, 1938

MY DEAR SANDERS,

What are you doing this week-end, the 30th? Whatever it is, I hope I can persuade you to put it off. We should very much like to have you with us at Fourways; and could you manage to bring Sir Henry Merrivale as well ?

Fourways, as you probably know, is Sam and Mina Constable's place. Sam is a sort of distant relative of mine, and in any case you'll have heard of Mina. They ask me to extend the heartiest invitation to you both. The reason is this: Mina has got hold of a mind-reader.

On my solemn word of honour, this is not a hoax or a joke. And let not your scientific soul be shocked. The fellow isn't a music-hall turn. He is a student of some kind. I don't think he is a fake; at least (so far as my somewhat dazed intelligence goes) I don't see how he can be a fake. Unassuming sort of chap, no fuss and feathers about him. But he really does seem to read thoughts in a way that will raise your hair. He's got some sort of theory that Thought is a physical force, which might be used as a weapon.

It will be a very small patty: just Sam and Mina; our friend the thought-reader, whose name is Pennik; Hilary Keen; and myself. Hilary Keen is a new gal, a great friend of mine - so no funny business, see?

Now have I intrigued you, or not? We are making the week-end from Friday, the 29th. Good train from Charing Cross, 5.30 to Camberdene. A car will meet you at the station. If you can manage it, drop me a line.

Yours,

LAWRENCE CHASE

p.s. - Is your fair lady, Marcia Blystone, still on that round-the-world cruise with her parents? I hear all is not well; hope nothing seriously wrong?

LETTER FROM DR JOHN SANDERS TO MR LAWRENCE CHASE

Harris Institute, Bloomsbury St., W.C.I,

27th April, 1938

MY DEAR CHASE,

Very glad to join you on Friday, but I am afraid it will be impossible for H. M. to be with us. He has to go north on some official business. But he is violently curious about your thought-reader, and promises to get back and at least look in by Sunday, if that will not be too late?

While reserving my own opinion until I have heard the evidence, I must say that if you have quoted him correctly your thought-reader appears to be talking scientific flapdoodle.

Many thanks to Mr and Mrs Constable. Charing Cross, 5.20 Camberdene.

Yours,

JOHN SANDERS

p.s. - I do not understand your reference to funny business. Nor to ‘all not being well'. Yes, Marcia is still on the cruise. Her last letter was from Honolulu; they have gone on from there to Jamaica; back home in June.


CHAPTER I

On the afternoon of Friday, April 29th, Dr John Sanders travelled down to Surrey by the recommended train.

He had no notion that he was on the eve of the criminal case which would turn the hair of the legal profession as grey as its wigs, and upset precedents of both law and medicine. But Sanders was not easy in his mind. Not even the brilliant spring afternoon, with a soft-wind and a clear-glowing sky, could allure him. The recommended train was crowded, so that he could not pull a certain letter out of his pocket and study it again as he might study a specimen through a microscope.

Of course, he had nothing to worry about. Marcia Blystone, though she might be six thousand miles away in Honolulu, was his fiancée. This world-cruise had been necessary because of a small scandal about her father arising out of the Haye murder case. She had not really been too keen to go, though Sanders could not blame her for her delight at the prospect. And she wrote frequently. Her letters were informative and sprightly j sometimes, he thought, a little too sprightly. He would have preferred something more on the sentimental side, or even impassioned side. Once - when she was in a sentimental mood, in Greece - he did get such a letter, and he walked about for days with his head in the air.

But it did not happen often. And what was actually beginning to gnaw at his imagination was the now persistent recurrence, in those letters, of the name of Kessler.

First the reference was casual. 'The passengers as a whole are a foul lot, but we have met one man who seems quite decent; Kessler, I think his name is.' Then presently: 'Mr Kessler has made this cruise four times, and is able to help us a lot.' And: 'You should have heard Gerald Kessler's description of his experiences with a camel in the Gobi.' Damn the Gobi and the swank that went therewith. It was always 'us,' but it became: 'Gerald Kessler was telling us,’ and finally, 'Jerry says.'

Sanders could trace the course of that acquaintanceship through every sea, as clearly as a ship's officer pins flags on a map to show the mileage from port to port. Kessler had begun to haunt him. Kessler's features remained vague, in spite of a snapshot of him with Marcia at Yokohama: showing him tall and lounging in white flannels, with a pipe in his mouth. He could not help endowing Kessler with vast accomplishments. Back to chilly England, in the days between December and March, came these tales of warm waters and coloured lanterns, where things seemed more spacious for being under the almond-blossom. Sanders - examining the innards of a corpse for the Home Office pathologist - was at times badly depressed. Faceless Kessler. Now they were at Honolulu. Sanders's notions of Honolulu were vague, being chiefly concerned with guitars and people throwing wreaths round other people's necks. But he could imagine that its effect on a girl like Marcia Blystone might be sinister.

Kessler, Kessler, Kessler! Or what about that other fellow, the one she barely mentioned? Mightn't Kessler be a screen?

Then again there were times when he wondered whether he might not be losing interest in Marcia. The sight of a letter beside his plate did not always produce the usual symptoms. There were times, as he read Marcia's sprightly and sophisticated descriptions, when he was almost tempted to say sadly, 'Light of my life, come off it.' His conscience pointed a stern finger at him for this; but there it was.

Such, then, was his state of mind when he went down to Fourways, Sam Constable's country house, for the weekend. It may have been partly responsible for what happened afterwards - he could never be quite sure.

It was a quarter past six when the train left him at a wayside station called Camberdene in the vast stillness of evening. He liked that stillness; he liked the feeling of being alone; for the first time he felt relaxed. The sky had that darkening clearness, with something of the quality of polished glass in it, by which everything seems large and fresh and new-washed. And the countryside smelled of evening as distinctively as it smelled of spring. No car had been sent to meet him, but he did not mind. A station-master, whose voice rose with hollow loudness along the platform, informed him that he could get no other conveyance there; and that Fourways was half a mile up the road. He set out to walk it cheerfully, carrying a heavy suitcase.

Fourways, when he found it, could not be called a gem of architecture. The one thing you could say about it was that it managed to look at once massive and yet squeezed together. It was Victorian Gothic: or, more properly, it started out in a smooth upward run of smooth dark-red brick, rose plainly to a narrow and massive height like the side of a ship, and then sprouted out into small pinnacle-towers, turrets, and gewgaw chimneys. Standing well back in the triangle formed by two sides of a cross-roads, its six or seven acres of ground were surrounded by a tall brick wall which itself must have cost somebody a fortune in the 'eighties.

Whoever built Fourways had wanted privacy, and had got it. Outside the walls at the cross-roads there was an A. A. box and an A.A. man directing traffic. But inside a turn of the path cut you off with trees, until you saw stained-glass windows and tiny balconies ahead.

Dr Sanders - vastly interested - tramped up the sanded drive to the noise of his own footsteps. There was a flutter in a bird-bath before the door, and a heavy twittering of sparrows round the face of Fourways. Sanders knew nothing of Sam or Mina Constable except that they were great friends of Lawrence Chase; he had no idea why they should want to meet him. Chase, that amiable but sometimes confused young barrister, usually went on the assumption that you knew everything. But it must be confessed that Sanders rather liked their house.

He raised a large iron, knocker on the door, and hammered it. The bird-bickering increased, but there was no reply.

After a pause he knocked again, without response. He could hear no footstep or stir of life inside. Coming on top of the absence of a car at the station, it disquieted him with several possibilities: the wrong date, a misunderstanding, a letter gone astray. He hesitated, put down his suitcase, and took a turn that carried him as far as the right-hand side of the house.

A wing, consisting of one large room, was built out from the middle of this side. It was a conservatory as the late nineteenth century knew conservatories; a spacious lounge built of wood, with tall stained-glass windows stretching to the ground, and rounded roof of glass. In this age it looked rich and archaic, stuffed and stuffy. One of the stained-glass windows was pushed half-way up; and, to his relief, Sanders heard a voice. It was a woman's voice, speaking above a faint musical noise like running water.

'He's got to go away,' the voice said. 'You've got to persuade Mina to send him away, Larry. Otherwise there'll be trouble: don't you know that?'

It spoke with such a note of urgency that Sanders stopped involuntarily. Someone else chuckled, and he heard Lawrence Chase's voice.

'What's the matter? Are you afraid he'll read your mind ?'

'You know, in a way I am,' the girl admitted.

Sanders coughed, scuffling his feet on the sanded driveway. Then he crossed the strip of lawn separating the conservatory from the driveway, tapped at the window, and ducked his head inside.

'Good Lord I' said Chase, turning round. A girl in a dark-coloured frock got up quickly from her seat by a miniature fountain.

Inside it was even warmer and stuffier than Sanders had expected. Very little light penetrated through the glass dome of the roof, whose edges were.heavily gilded. Large plants of a semi-tropical variety, interspersed with ferns and palms, thickened the dimness. The tiny fountain fell with such thin spray that it made only a kind of murmur in the centre of a dull-tiled floor thick with rugs. Against this background of the outmoded, a modern portable electric fire made a. glow which reflected orange-red in the floor, the spray of the fountain, and the glass roof.

‘It's old Sanders,' observed Chase, as though incredulous. 'Good Lord, look here, I'm sorry about that car. We seem to have started the week-end badly already. By the way, let me present: Dr Sanders, this is Miss Hilary Keen.'

He gave Sanders a significant look, like one who repeats and-no-funny-business, understand? His face, already long, grew longer and more solemn. Lawrence Chase was a long lean young man with an unhurried manner and a genuine talent for the law. The words rolled from his tongue. At the time when this house was built, there was current a phrase which exactly described him: he looked as though he had just stepped out of a band-box. But solemnity was his keynote now.

'Everything is disorganized, I'm afraid,' he explained. "That's why you weren't met. We've had an accident.' 'An accident?'

'Yes. Mina and Hilary and Sam and I came down by train. So did our thought-reading friend Pennik. But the servants - all four of 'em - were driving down in Sam's car with all the luggage. The luggage was sent on to us; but not the servants, I'm afraid.'

'Not the servants ? Why not ?'

'Well, nobody seems to know. Hodges, that's Sam's chauffeur, evidently tried to take a curve on a hill too fast, and smacked into a lorry this side of Guildford. I don't understand it, because Hodges is the most careful driver I ever rode with.'

'You mean they're seriously -?'

'Oh no, nobody is seriously hurt. But bruises and shock at the least of it, that'll keep them there all night anyway. In the meantime, we haven't even got anybody to fry an egg. It's inconvenient. Much more inconvenient for them, of course, poor devils,' he added hastily.

'Much more,' agreed Hilary Keen. 'And I can fry an egg. How do you do, Dr Sanders?'

Sanders had been waiting to acknowledge the introduction. In this semi-gloom it was difficult to see her distinctly. Though she must have been about his own age, in the early thirties, she seemed far younger by reason of a sort of smooth and warm aliveness: an aliveness of body and mind and even voice. It was not that she conveyed the impression of being fragile, but only of being young. She was not a beauty, for she had no personality of beauty. Her blue eyes and dark brown bobbed hair were of such a conventional type that you might not have looked twice at her if it had not been for that aliveness of personality. But, once having looked, you studied her. In addition to this vitality, Sanders had seldom seen a person with more poise, or less restlessness of gesture. She sat by the rim of the fountain, wearing a plain dark frock; and you did not forget her presence.

Also, she had a very pleasant laugh.

'Odd,' Chase was going on in a ruminating tone, 'how lonely it seems in a house without servants. Odd - the six of us, shut up here over the week-end, with nobody to run the ship.'

‘Is it?' inquired Hilary. 'What's odd about it?'

Though she took up the challenge instantly, Sanders could sense the same atmosphere which Chase could perhaps not define himself. In a room opening off the conservatory he could hear a clock strike; it was as though the curtains of Fourways muffled them off from the world. Chase hesitated.

'Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm sharing the general tendency towards the psychic. And then poor old Sam will have a fit if the invaluable Parker isn't here to draw his bath or put in his cuff-links. - Hilary,' he added, with a swift and fluent turn of the subject, 'is in the same line of business as we are, my lad. She works for the Department of Public Prosecutions. She charges 'em with the crime; you cut 'em up; I defend or prosecute 'em. With luck. We're a fine parcel of ghouls, aren't we?'

'I suppose we are, really,' Hilary agreed with all seriousness. She appealed to Sanders. 'But - you're the friend of Sir Henry Merrivale, aren't you?'

'I'm one of them, anyhow.'

'And he is coming down here on Sunday, isn't he?'. 'Oh yes.'

'Hilary expects trouble with our friend the mind-reader,' said Chase. He spoke with a kind of expansive fondness, as though he were indulging a small girl.