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The Secret Adversary, Page 2

Agatha Christie


  “TOMMY, old thing!”

  “Tuppence, old bean!”

  The two young people greeted each other affectionately, and momentarilyblocked the Dover Street Tube exit in doing so. The adjective “old” was misleading. Their united ages would certainly not have totalledforty-five.

  “Not seen you for simply centuries,” continued the young man. “Where areyou off to? Come and chew a bun with me. We’re getting a bit unpopularhere--blocking the gangway as it were. Let’s get out of it.”

  The girl assenting, they started walking down Dover Street towardsPiccadilly.

  “Now then,” said Tommy, “where shall we go?”

  The very faint anxiety which underlay his tone did not escape the astuteears of Miss Prudence Cowley, known to her intimate friends for somemysterious reason as “Tuppence.” She pounced at once.

  “Tommy, you’re stony!”

  “Not a bit of it,” declared Tommy unconvincingly. “Rolling in cash.”

  “You always were a shocking liar,” said Tuppence severely, “though youdid once persuade Sister Greenbank that the doctor had ordered you beeras a tonic, but forgotten to write it on the chart. Do you remember?”

  Tommy chuckled.

  “I should think I did! Wasn’t the old cat in a rage when she foundout? Not that she was a bad sort really, old Mother Greenbank! Good oldhospital--demobbed like everything else, I suppose?”

  Tuppence sighed.

  “Yes. You too?”

  Tommy nodded.

  “Two months ago.”

  “Gratuity?” hinted Tuppence.


  “Oh, Tommy!”

  “No, old thing, not in riotous dissipation. No such luck! The cost ofliving--ordinary plain, or garden living nowadays is, I assure you, ifyou do not know----”

  “My dear child,” interrupted Tuppence, “there is nothing I do _not_ knowabout the cost of living. Here we are at Lyons’, and we will each of uspay for our own. That’s it!” And Tuppence led the way upstairs.

  The place was full, and they wandered about looking for a table,catching odds and ends of conversation as they did so.

  “And--do you know, she sat down and _cried_ when I told her she couldn’thave the flat after all.” “It was simply a _bargain_, my dear! Just likethe one Mabel Lewis brought from Paris----”

  “Funny scraps one does overhear,” murmured Tommy. “I passed two Johnniesin the street to-day talking about some one called Jane Finn. Did youever hear such a name?”

  But at that moment two elderly ladies rose and collected parcels, andTuppence deftly ensconced herself in one of the vacant seats.

  Tommy ordered tea and buns. Tuppence ordered tea and buttered toast.

  “And mind the tea comes in separate teapots,” she added severely.

  Tommy sat down opposite her. His bared head revealed a shockof exquisitely slicked-back red hair. His face was pleasantlyugly--nondescript, yet unmistakably the face of a gentleman and asportsman. His brown suit was well cut, but perilously near the end ofits tether.

  They were an essentially modern-looking couple as they sat there.Tuppence had no claim to beauty, but there was character and charm inthe elfin lines of her little face, with its determined chin and large,wide-apart grey eyes that looked mistily out from under straight, blackbrows. She wore a small bright green toque over her black bobbed hair,and her extremely short and rather shabby skirt revealed a pair ofuncommonly dainty ankles. Her appearance presented a valiant attempt atsmartness.

  The tea came at last, and Tuppence, rousing herself from a fit ofmeditation, poured it out.

  “Now then,” said Tommy, taking a large bite of bun, “let’s getup-to-date. Remember, I haven’t seen you since that time in hospital in1916.”

  “Very well.” Tuppence helped herself liberally to buttered toast.“Abridged biography of Miss Prudence Cowley, fifth daughter ofArchdeacon Cowley of Little Missendell, Suffolk. Miss Cowley left thedelights (and drudgeries) of her home life early in the war and came upto London, where she entered an officers’ hospital. First month: Washedup six hundred and forty-eight plates every day. Second month: Promotedto drying aforesaid plates. Third month: Promoted to peeling potatoes.Fourth month: Promoted to cutting bread and butter. Fifth month:Promoted one floor up to duties of wardmaid with mop and pail. Sixthmonth: Promoted to waiting at table. Seventh month: Pleasing appearanceand nice manners so striking that am promoted to waiting on the Sisters!Eighth month: Slight check in career. Sister Bond ate Sister Westhaven’segg! Grand row! Wardmaid clearly to blame! Inattention in such importantmatters cannot be too highly censured. Mop and pail again! How are themighty fallen! Ninth month: Promoted to sweeping out wards, where Ifound a friend of my childhood in Lieutenant Thomas Beresford (bow,Tommy!), whom I had not seen for five long years. The meeting wasaffecting! Tenth month: Reproved by matron for visiting the pictures incompany with one of the patients, namely: the aforementioned LieutenantThomas Beresford. Eleventh and twelfth months: Parlourmaid dutiesresumed with entire success. At the end of the year left hospital in ablaze of glory. After that, the talented Miss Cowley drove successivelya trade delivery van, a motor-lorry and a general! The last was thepleasantest. He was quite a young general!”

  “What blighter was that?” inquired Tommy. “Perfectly sickening the waythose brass hats drove from the War Office to the _Savoy_, and from the_Savoy_ to the War Office!”

  “I’ve forgotten his name now,” confessed Tuppence. “To resume, that wasin a way the apex of my career. I next entered a Government office. Wehad several very enjoyable tea parties. I had intended to become aland girl, a postwoman, and a bus conductress by way of rounding offmy career--but the Armistice intervened! I clung to the office with thetrue limpet touch for many long months, but, alas, I was combed out atlast. Since then I’ve been looking for a job. Now then--your turn.”

  “There’s not so much promotion in mine,” said Tommy regretfully, “and agreat deal less variety. I went out to France again, as you know. Thenthey sent me to Mesopotamia, and I got wounded for the second time,and went into hospital out there. Then I got stuck in Egypt till theArmistice happened, kicked my heels there some time longer, and, as Itold you, finally got demobbed. And, for ten long, weary months I’vebeen job hunting! There aren’t any jobs! And, if there were, theywouldn’t give ‘em to me. What good am I? What do I know about business?Nothing.”

  Tuppence nodded gloomily.

  “What about the colonies?” she suggested.

  Tommy shook his head.

  “I shouldn’t like the colonies--and I’m perfectly certain they wouldn’tlike me!”

  “Rich relations?”

  Again Tommy shook his head.

  “Oh, Tommy, not even a great-aunt?”

  “I’ve got an old uncle who’s more or less rolling, but he’s no good.”

  “Why not?”

  “Wanted to adopt me once. I refused.”

  “I think I remember hearing about it,” said Tuppence slowly. “Yourefused because of your mother----”

  Tommy flushed.

  “Yes, it would have been a bit rough on the mater. As you know, I wasall she had. Old boy hated her--wanted to get me away from her. Just abit of spite.”

  “Your mother’s dead, isn’t she?” said Tuppence gently.

  Tommy nodded.

  Tuppence’s large grey eyes looked misty.

  “You’re a good sort, Tommy. I always knew it.”

  “Rot!” said Tommy hastily. “Well, that’s my position. I’m just aboutdesperate.”

  “So am I! I’ve hung out as long as I could. I’ve touted round. I’veanswered advertisements. I’ve tried every mortal blessed thing. I’vescrewed and saved and pinched! But it’s no good. I shall have to gohome!”

  “Don’t you want to?”

  “Of course I don’t want to! What’s the good of being sentimental?Father’s a dear--I’m awfully fond of him--but you’ve no idea ho
w I worryhim! He has that delightful early Victorian view that short skirts andsmoking are immoral. You can imagine what a thorn in the flesh I am tohim! He just heaved a sigh of relief when the war took me off. You see,there are seven of us at home. It’s awful! All housework and mothers’meetings! I have always been the changeling. I don’t want to go back,but--oh, Tommy, what else is there to do?”

  Tommy shook his head sadly. There was a silence, and then Tuppence burstout:

  “Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! Idare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is!”

  “Same here,” agreed Tommy with feeling.

  “I’ve thought over every imaginable way of getting it too,” continuedTuppence. “There are only three! To be left it, to marry it, or to makeit. First is ruled out. I haven’t got any rich elderly relatives. Anyrelatives I have are in homes for decayed gentlewomen! I always help oldladies over crossings, and pick up parcels for old gentlemen, in casethey should turn out to be eccentric millionaires. But not one of themhas ever asked me my name--and quite a lot never said ‘Thank you.’”

  There was a pause.

  “Of course,” resumed Tuppence, “marriage is my best chance. I made up mymind to marry money when I was quite young. Any thinking girl would!I’m not sentimental, you know.” She paused. “Come now, you can’t say I’msentimental,” she added sharply.

  “Certainly not,” agreed Tommy hastily. “No one would ever think ofsentiment in connection with you.”

  “That’s not very polite,” replied Tuppence. “But I dare say you mean itall right. Well, there it is! I’m ready and willing--but I never meetany rich men! All the boys I know are about as hard up as I am.”

  “What about the general?” inquired Tommy.

  “I fancy he keeps a bicycle shop in time of peace,” explained Tuppence.“No, there it is! Now _you_ could marry a rich girl.”

  “I’m like you. I don’t know any.”

  “That doesn’t matter. You can always get to know one. Now, if I see aman in a fur coat come out of the _Ritz_ I can’t rush up to him and say:‘Look here, you’re rich. I’d like to know you.’”

  “Do you suggest that I should do that to a similarly garbed female?”

  “Don’t be silly. You tread on her foot, or pick up her handkerchief, orsomething like that. If she thinks you want to know her she’s flattered,and will manage it for you somehow.”

  “You overrate my manly charms,” murmured Tommy.

  “On the other hand,” proceeded Tuppence, “my millionaire would probablyrun for his life! No--marriage is fraught with difficulties. Remains--to_make_ money!”

  “We’ve tried that, and failed,” Tommy reminded her.

  “We’ve tried all the orthodox ways, yes. But suppose we try theunorthodox. Tommy, let’s be adventurers!”

  “Certainly,” replied Tommy cheerfully. “How do we begin?”

  “That’s the difficulty. If we could make ourselves known, people mighthire us to commit crimes for them.”

  “Delightful,” commented Tommy. “Especially coming from a clergyman’sdaughter!”

  “The moral guilt,” Tuppence pointed out, “would be theirs--not mine. Youmust admit that there’s a difference between stealing a diamond necklacefor yourself and being hired to steal it.”

  “There wouldn’t be the least difference if you were caught!”

  “Perhaps not. But I shouldn’t be caught. I’m so clever.”

  “Modesty always was your besetting sin,” remarked Tommy.

  “Don’t rag. Look here, Tommy, shall we really? Shall we form a businesspartnership?”

  “Form a company for the stealing of diamond necklaces?”

  “That was only an illustration. Let’s have a--what do you call it inbook-keeping?”

  “Don’t know. Never did any.”

  “I have--but I always got mixed up, and used to put credit entries onthe debit side, and vice versa--so they fired me out. Oh, I know--ajoint venture! It struck me as such a romantic phrase to come across inthe middle of musty old figures. It’s got an Elizabethan flavour aboutit--makes one think of galleons and doubloons. A joint venture!”

  “Trading under the name of the Young Adventurers, Ltd.? Is that youridea, Tuppence?”

  “It’s all very well to laugh, but I feel there might be something init.”

  “How do you propose to get in touch with your would-be employers?”

  “Advertisement,” replied Tuppence promptly. “Have you got a bit of paperand a pencil? Men usually seem to have. Just like we have hairpins andpowder-puffs.”

  Tommy handed over a rather shabby green notebook, and Tuppence beganwriting busily.

  “Shall we begin: ‘Young officer, twice wounded in the war----’”

  “Certainly not.”

  “Oh, very well, my dear boy. But I can assure you that that sort ofthing might touch the heart of an elderly spinster, and she might adoptyou, and then there would be no need for you to be a young adventurer atall.”

  “I don’t want to be adopted.”

  “I forgot you had a prejudice against it. I was only ragging you!The papers are full up to the brim with that type of thing. Nowlisten--how’s this? ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to doanything, go anywhere. Pay must be good.’ (We might as well makethat clear from the start.) Then we might add: ‘No reasonable offerrefused’--like flats and furniture.”

  “I should think any offer we get in answer to that would be a pretty_un_reasonable one!”

  “Tommy! You’re a genius! That’s ever so much more chic. ‘No unreasonableoffer refused--if pay is good.’ How’s that?”

  “I shouldn’t mention pay again. It looks rather eager.”

  “It couldn’t look as eager as I feel! But perhaps you are right. NowI’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willingto do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offerrefused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”

  “It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by alunatic.”

  “It’s not half so insane as a thing I read this morning beginning‘Petunia’ and signed ‘Best Boy.’” She tore out the leaf and handed itto Tommy. “There you are. _Times_, I think. Reply to Box so-and-so.I expect it will be about five shillings. Here’s half a crown for myshare.”

  Tommy was holding the paper thoughtfully. His faced burned a deeper red.

  “Shall we really try it?” he said at last. “Shall we, Tuppence? Just forthe fun of the thing?”

  “Tommy, you’re a sport! I knew you would be! Let’s drink to success.” She poured some cold dregs of tea into the two cups.

  “Here’s to our joint venture, and may it prosper!”

  “The Young Adventurers, Ltd.!” responded Tommy.

  They put down the cups and laughed rather uncertainly. Tuppence rose.

  “I must return to my palatial suite at the hostel.”

  “Perhaps it is time I strolled round to the _Ritz_,” agreed Tommy with agrin. “Where shall we meet? And when?”

  “Twelve o’clock to-morrow. Piccadilly Tube station. Will that suit you?”

  “My time is my own,” replied Mr. Beresford magnificently.

  “So long, then.”

  “Good-bye, old thing.”

  The two young people went off in opposite directions. Tuppence’s hostelwas situated in what was charitably called Southern Belgravia. Forreasons of economy she did not take a bus.

  She was half-way across St. James’s Park, when a man’s voice behind hermade her start.

  “Excuse me,” it said. “But may I speak to you for a moment?”