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The Whisper in the Gloom

Nicholas Blake



  About the Book

  About the Author

  Also by Nicholas Blake

  Title Page

  Part One

  1. The Round Pond Killing

  2. The Martians—and Others—Confer

  3. The Cannibal Party

  4. Model for an Emergency

  5. Nice Morning, Mr. Borch

  6. A Home from Home

  7. Rapiers and Bludgeons

  8. The Aftermath

  Part Two

  9. Wanted—A Boy

  10. Brisk Business in the Portobello Road

  11. Hospital Visitors

  12. Light at Eventide

  13. No. 3 Berth

  14. Peace, Perfect Peace

  15. The Weak Joint

  16. The Battle of Stourford Hall

  17. The Object of the Exercise

  More from Vintage Classic Crime


  About the Book

  A small boy playing in the park is handed a crumpled piece of paper by a stranger, who then collapses and dies. The boy, realising that he himself is now in danger, flees from the park with the help of detective Nigel Strangeways, only to discover that the mysterious message consists of just his own name and age: Bert Hale 12.

  Bert and his young friends are confident that they can crack the case but they soon discover that they will need the help of not just Nigel Strangeways, but of the whole British government…

  About the Author

  Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, who was born in County Laois, Ireland, in 1904. After his mother died in 1906, he was brought up in London by his father, spending summer holidays with relatives in Wexford. He was educated at Sherborne School and Wadham College, Oxford, from which he graduated in 1927. Blake initially worked as a teacher to supplement his income from his poetry writing and he published his first Nigel Strangeways novel, A Question of Proof, in 1935. Blake went on to write a further nineteen crime novels, all but four of which featured Nigel Strangeways, as well as numerous poetry collections and translations.

  During the Second World War he worked as a publications editor in the Ministry of Information, which he used as the basis for the Ministry of Morale in Minute for Murder, and after the war he joined the publishers Chatto & Windus as an editor and director. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1968 and died in 1972 at the home of his friend, the writer Kingsley Amis.

  Also by Nicholas Blake

  A Question of Proof

  Thou Shell of Death

  There’s Trouble Brewing

  The Beast Must Die

  The Widow’s Cruise

  Malice in Wonderland

  The Case of the Abominable Snowman

  The Smiler with the Knife

  Minute for Murder

  Head of a Traveller

  The Dreadful Hollow

  End of Chapter

  The Worm of Death

  The Sad Variety

  The Morning After Death


  The Whisper in the





  The Round Pond Killing

  BERT HALE, THE world-famous inventor, walked into Kensington Gardens with his latest invention under his arm. It was the afternoon of Sunday, August 1st. High overhead, in a fitful easterly wind, kites were dancing, like spots before liverish eyes. From the bandstand, as if a door were being intermittently opened and closed on the music, the strains of a Gilbert and Sullivan medley blared out, then receded to a pianissimo, rose and were shut off: the scarlet and brass of the bandsmen twinkled between the low trees, as the leaves stirred nervously. A newspaper sheet wrapped itself round Bert’s leg. He rubbed his eyes, into which the wind had puffed some dust, and stamping the newspaper flat, read the headlines:


  Bert’s mind registered the headline as part of something that was in the air, something talked about all round him, tuning with the gay, vague, yet exasperated atmosphere of the summer afternoon, the high-flying kites, the strolling crowds, the children and dogs weaving among them—an atmosphere of suspense. But he was not concerned with it: his own private suspense was concentrated upon a single point—would the invention work?

  He paused, just inside the gate, to glance at the regulations set up by the L.C.C. on a board there. It was not that Bert, known to his associates as “The Brain,” was a specially law-abiding citizen; simply that he was a great reader, an addict of print. His eye lit upon one of the regulations:

  No person shall operate a power-driven craft … without reasonable consideration for other craft or waterfowl.

  Sucking in his lower lip, Bert moved on toward the Round Pond, lost in calculation. He had learned early the discipline of detachment. Just as, during his first year at school, he had mastered the art of totally withdrawing his attention from any teacher who, he judged, did not deserve it, so now he drove away, by an involved bout of mental arithmetic, his anxiety over his new invention. The problem he set himself was academic perhaps, but none the less absorbing: suppose that every time I go to the hairdresser I lose three ounces of hair, and suppose that I go twice a month, and suppose that a mattress contains fourteen pounds of hair, how many mattresses could I have stuffed by the time I am seventy-two?…

  Dai Williams entered the Gardens by another gate. Never in his life, not even in the old, unregenerate days when it was, so to speak, a sine qua non of his professional activities, had he so urgently felt the need for a crowd of people around him. He knew in his bones that he was being followed—had been followed since last night. And he knew that he had lost his nerve. All he had to do was to ring up a certain number at New Scotland Yard. There was no telephone in his lodging house, of course: but there were telephone booths in the streets. Yet he had passed them by, afraid of what might happen if he so much as made to enter one. He could go up to a policeman. He’d always got on well with the cops, and he was on their side now. Indeed, that had been his intention—until, in Church Street, only a few hundred yards from the Kensington Police Station, he saw, crossing the road in front of him, toward him, two men; and one of these was the man he had noticed leaning against a lamppost outside, when he got out of bed this morning. So he had abruptly turned left, up the side street, attaching himself to a convoy of prams bound for the Gardens.

  What had finally frayed through his nerve was their inactivity. The sort of mob he had to deal with made it short and sharp—the chiv, the boot, hospital. Normally, they’d think nothing of pushing their way into his lodging house and doing him up. It was a vocational risk he ran, as a Finger who’d turned Snout. What were they waiting for?

  In his close escort of prams, nurses, mothers, cavorting children, Dai Williams moved toward the Round Pond, a small, respectably dressed man, with the prison pallor on his face still, and sharp, frightened eyes. He glanced up at the kites, hanging or swerving in the washed-out, nondescript sky. Why had they put a tail on him? What were they waiting for? He began to sweat. A flurry of dust made his eyes water. Suppose someone had said, “Spot Dai Williams”? Perhaps they were just jollying him along till the operator turned up. The sweat in the small of his back went cold. But Jesus Christ!—they didn’t put the cross on you for—He’d done nothing yet; only kept his ear open, as the Super had asked; and, last night, heard a few words that didn’t make bleeding sense anyway.

  Skirting the Round Pond, Dai Williams began to walk toward the bandstand, where the crowds were thickest. He’d always liked music, sung in Chapel choir once, played cornet in the Colliery Silver Band. Those were the days. He took a green cha
ir, well out in the open where he could see all round him, drew a wad of newspaper from his pocket, spread out the paper, and stared at the headlines unseeingly, his heart thumping hard as the big drum in the bandstand.

  One of the two men who had followed him made the lightest movement of his head toward a third man, strolling on the grass at a little distance, then said to his companion, “Leave it to the Quack now.”

  The pair sat down on the grass, behind Dai Williams’ back, forty yards away. They looked as if they were enjoying the sun and the music….

  The shore of the pond made a Brueghel-like scene, all movement, shifting groups, gossip, vigorous colors, figures in violent activity or relaxed—watching everything and nothing—an everchanging frame and fringe round the oval of water. Babies in prams gazed stolidly at the maniacal antics of the seagulls, to which their nurses were throwing bread. Urchins, with jam jars and shrill cries, waded out after minnows. Lovers, hand in hand, walked round and round and round, like donkeys in a treadmill, oblivious to place or time. Middle-aged men loped after their model yachts, ignoring everything but the set of a sail and the slant of the wind. Carrying a tiny, perfectly constructed brigantine, an ancient and red-nosed mariner, who appeared to have braved a thousand years the bottle and the breeze, tottered toward the waterside.

  On the pond, too, all was brisk and glittering. The surface rippled, the big yachts thrashed their way, racing from west to east. Two ducks, rendered neurotic by the persecution of the model speedboats, were picking on a small, defenseless sailing vessel, swimming beside it and pecking glumly at its stem and mainsheet. A yacht, sailing too close to the wind, stood suddenly upright, stammered with its sails, then paid off on the other tack. A power boat buzzed out in a crazy semicircle, scattering a covey of waterfowl and causing an adjacent swan to remove its head from among its tail feathers and glide huffily away. A radio-controlled trawler, its owner and his apparatus surrounded by a little crowd, performed its private evolutions among the other occupants of the pond, like a self-conscious only child in the hurly-burly of a children’s party….

  As he approached the pond, the intrepid interplanetary navigator, Bert Hale, glanced up at the kites. Kid stuff, he thought: silly wobbling things. He had worked out the problem of the hair mattresses, and was engaged in calculating the number of days it would take his space ship, traveling at x miles per hour, to do the round trip of half a dozen selected planets. He was twelve now. In eight years he could reckon to start building it. Allow three for the building and another two for exhaustive tests. So he’d be twenty-five by the time he started. Pretty old; but not too old to enjoy the triumph. The First Man on Mars. Commodore Hale Plants the Union Jack on Saturn. Hale Commandeers Moon. Air Marshal Hale, the Columbus of the Solar System.

  He was brought down to earth by a man bumping into him and nearly knocking the new invention from under his arm. The man lurched ahead, with a prancing, pigeon-toed gait, leaving a wake of some queer smell behind him. What Bert’s mother called “a rancid odor.” Bert walked slower. He was beginning to feel really frightened. He was glad he hadn’t brought the other members of the Martian Society with him. Suppose the invention didn’t work? It’d be bad enough to have all the Round Pond kids jeering him. But, if the jet-propelled craft he had built failed to jet-propel itself on this maiden voyage—if it blew up, or sank, or just wouldn’t start at all—he could imagine what Foxy and Copper would say. Results were what they expected from the President of the Martian Society, not formulae.

  Bert laid his jet-propelled craft on the grass, and prepared to tune it up. A small, white-faced man on a chair nearby peered at him over the top of a newspaper which shook violently in his hands. Other men were lying about on the grass, in shirt-sleeves, asleep. They might well have been dead; nobody would notice the difference; least of all Bert, intent on his model….

  Drops of sweat, trickling into Dai Williams’ eyes, blurred the headlines. This Russki lark, he thought: will it come to anything? Peace in our time. The cold war. He made a move to take off his coat, but desisted: it was as if the cheap, respectable jacket gave him protection; in his shirt-sleeves he would feel so much the more vulnerable. His mind was dragged back, for the hundredth time, to those few words he had heard last night, whispered in the gloom of the alley just outside the back door, the secret door of the night club.

  The toff he was following had turned down into the alley. Dai had to approach cautiously; he knew of this night club by hearsay, and he knew it was not healthy to know about the position of its escape hatch. So it took him a couple of minutes to creep up within earshot of the voices, and by the time he’d got there, they’d nearly finished talking. All he heard were those few whispered words. Then the door unexpectedly opened, a shaft of light struck Dai full in the face, and he did a Nurmi. But he must have been recognized—by the toff? the man whom the toff had been talking to and Dai hadn’t got a glimpse of? Anyway, they’d picked him up, and they’d not let him drop since then; and now their educational committee was tailing him around, awaiting a suitable moment to educate him.

  What worried him most, because it didn’t fit in with the general set-up, was that he didn’t recognize these men. He thought he knew all Sam Borch’s mob, and the night club was certainly one of Sam’s interests: but the two blokes following him were none of the old familiar faces. Looking over his shoulder he could see them, reclining on the grass, peaceably smoking, among the playing children and the dogs; and he did not know them. Well, they couldn’t start anything here.

  There must be something big in the words he had heard, though, or why should they go to all this trouble? Dai took out a pencil and jotted down a memo of them on the margin of his newspaper, as if to see them written would reveal their meaning. It did not. But they led his eye to something printed beside them, at the bottom of the column—at the end of the story which lay beneath those glaring headlines. And at once, two minutes before he died, Dai Williams was granted an inkling of the truth, of the reason why he had to be removed from the board. Glancing involuntarily over his shoulder, he saw that the two men had risen from the grass and were strolling, slowly, at their leisure, toward him.

  He turned his chair to face them. Which was just what they wanted. A third man—a man with a prancing, pigeon-toed gait, the pupils of his eyes abnormally diminished—moved upon Dai Williams from behind….

  Bert had screwed down the engine of his boat so that it ticked over nicely, and was carrying it to the water’s edge. Once again it was nearly knocked out of his grasp—this time by a kid running fast to get his kite into the air. Yelling an unseemly word at the kid, Bert moved on.

  In the bandstand, a baton was raised and the band of the Welsh Guards, sweating in their scarlet uniforms, went at it with a crash and a blare. Everyone, except the devotees by the pondside—even the lovers lying on the grass—turned their eyes eyes toward the band for a moment when that glorious tune struck up.

  The Quack had chosen his moment well. This was the sort of job he enjoyed, particularly when they let him coke himself up for the occasion. He felt beautifully exhilarated, free as the wind, treading on air. In his hospital days, before he was struck off the Register, he had been considered a most promising surgeon. The present operation would not be bungled. They were paying him enough for his professional services to keep him in cocaine, and other luxuries, for quite a time. He knew the precise spot at which to make the incision, kept his pinpoint eyes fastened upon it as he pranced gaily up behind Dai Williams’ back.

  He arrived there just after the band struck up, drowning the slight sound of his footsteps on the grass. He withdrew the instrument from his pocket. It flashed across his mind that it was not sterilized, and he chuckled inside himself. His hand started the instrument on its way toward the vital spot. But at that instant he felt a tap on his shoulder.

  The kid who had fallen foul of Bert had not quite succeeded in getting his kite into the air. It swung wildly, dipped abruptly, hit a man on the shoulde
r, bounced upward again, and soared well away.

  It was a light tap, but enough to divert the Quack’s instrument by a quarter of an inch. The instrument punctured the skin, drove home, was withdrawn—almost faster than an eye could follow; and if anyone had been watching, he would have thought he’d seen a man clapping a friend on the back, then moving briskly away. But the point just missed its mark: though Dai Williams had a mortal wound, death was not, as the Quack had aimed for, instantaneous.

  The two men who had occupied Dai’s attention now stood in front of him, twenty yards away, lighting cigarettes. They watched the Quack move off. It was quite unnecessary to cover his retreat, for nobody around them had noticed anything amiss. Even Dai himself hadn’t given a squeak; he just sat there looking surprised. Surprised, but not—regrettably—dead. After what might have been thirty seconds, he rose and began to walk, rather drunkenly, toward the Round Pond. The two men, keeping their distance, saw that his mouth was opening and shutting. They could not hear, through the noise of the band, that in fact Dai Williams was singing.

  Dai had felt a blow, a smarting. As often happens with a mortal wound, he felt at first more surprised than hurt. But then he was aware of a pervading weakness—his vitality draining out of him like water from a bath. He knew he was finished, and at the same instant he heard what the band was playing: “Land of Our Fathers.” He was at Cardiff Arms Park, years ago, on his feet, singing, while the red-jerseyed heroes trotted out onto the field. Dai Williams had never been any sort of a hero; but now, for the first and last time, the divine spark in him blazed up, and he was consumed with one single aim—to pass on his information before he died.

  To his clouding mind, all men were the enemy, not to be trusted. He did not know how many of Them there were around him, mixing with the crowds, reading to intercept his message. He remembered a boy with a boat, near him on the grass—a boat whose deck came off like the lid of a box. He could see the boy, by the water now, about to launch it. Dai Williams began the long, long journey to the waterside, thirty paces away.