Read CHAPTER VII of The Big Bow Mystery , free online book, by I. Zangwill, on

When Wimp invited Grodman to eat his Christmas plum-pudding at King’s Cross Grodman was only a little surprised. The two men were always overwhelmingly cordial when they met, in order to disguise their mutual detestation. When people really like each other, they make no concealment of their mutual contempt. In his letter to Grodman, Wimp said that he thought it would be nicer for him to keep Christmas in company than in solitary state. There seems to be a general prejudice in favor of Christmas numbers, and Grodman yielded to it. Besides, he thought that a peep at the Wimp domestic interior would be as good as a pantomime. He quite enjoyed the fun that was coming, for he knew that Wimp had not invited him out of mere “peace and goodwill.”

There was only one other guest at the festive board. This was Wimp’s wife’s mother’s mother, a lady of sweet seventy. Only a minority of mankind can obtain a grandmother-in-law by marrying, but Wimp was not unduly conceited. The old lady suffered from delusions. One of them was that she was a centenarian. She dressed for the part. It is extraordinary what pains ladies will take to conceal their age. Another of Wimp’s grandmother-in-law’s delusions was that Wimp had married to get her into the family. Not to frustrate his design, she always gave him her company on high-days and holidays. Wilfred Wimp the little boy who stole the jam was in great form at the Christmas dinner. The only drawback to his enjoyment was that its sweets needed no stealing. His mother presided over the platters, and thought how much cleverer Grodman was than her husband. When the pretty servant who waited on them was momentarily out of the room, Grodman had remarked that she seemed very inquisitive. This coincided with Mrs. Wimp’s own convictions, though Mr. Wimp could never be brought to see anything unsatisfactory or suspicious about the girl, not even though there were faults in spelling in the “character” with which her last mistress had supplied her.

It was true that the puss had pricked up her ears when Denzil Cantercot’s name was mentioned. Grodman saw it and watched her, and fooled Wimp to the top of his bent. It was, of course, Wimp who introduced the poet’s name, and he did it so casually that Grodman perceived at once that he wished to pump him. The idea that the rival bloodhound should come to him for confirmation of suspicions against his own pet jackal was too funny. It was almost as funny to Grodman that evidence of some sort should be obviously lying to hand in the bosom of Wimp’s hand-maiden; so obviously that Wimp could not see it. Grodman enjoyed his Christmas dinner, secure that he had not found a successor after all. Wimp, for his part, contemptuously wondered at the way Grodman’s thought hovered about Denzil without grazing the truth. A man constantly about him, too!

“Denzil is a man of genius,” said Grodman. “And as such comes under the heading of Suspicious Characters. He has written an Epic Poem and read it to me. It is morbid from start to finish. There is ‘death’ in the third line. I daresay you know he polished up my book.” Grodman’s artlessness was perfect.

“No. You surprise me,” Wimp replied. “I’m sure he couldn’t have done much to it. Look at your letter in the ‘Pell Mell.’ Who wants more polish and refinement than that showed?”

“Ah, I didn’t know you did me the honor of reading that.”

“Oh, yes; we both read it,” put in Mrs. Wimp. “I told Mr. Wimp it was clever and cogent. After that quotation from the letter to the poor fellow’s fiancee there could be no more doubt but that it was murder. Mr. Wimp was convinced by it, too, weren’t you, Edward?”

Edward coughed uneasily. It was a true statement, and therefore an indiscreet. Grodman would plume himself terribly. At this moment Wimp felt that Grodman had been right in remaining a bachelor. Grodman perceived the humor of the situation, and wore a curious, sub-mocking smile.

“On the day I was born,” said Wimp’s grandmother-in-law, “over a hundred years ago, there was a babe murdered.” Wimp found himself wishing it had been she. He was anxious to get back to Cantercot. “Don’t let us talk shop on Christmas Day,” he said, smiling at Grodman. “Besides, murder isn’t a very appropriate subject.”

“No, it ain’t,” said Grodman. “How did we get on to it? Oh, yes Denzil Cantercot. Ha! ha! ha! That’s curious, for since Denzil wrote ’Criminals I have Caught,’ his mind’s running on nothing but murders. A poet’s brain is easily turned.”

Wimp’s eye glittered with excitement and contempt for Grodman’s blindness. In Grodman’s eye there danced an amused scorn of Wimp; to the outsider his amusement appeared at the expense of the poet.

Having wrought his rival up to the highest pitch Grodman slyly and suddenly unstrung him.

“How lucky for Denzil!” he said, still in the same naïve, facetious Christmasy tone, “that he can prove an alibi in this Constant affair.”

“An alibi!” gasped Wimp. “Really?”

“Oh, yes. He was with his wife, you know. She’s my woman of all work, Jane. She happened to mention his being with her.”

Jane had done nothing of the kind. After the colloquy he had overheard Grodman had set himself to find out the relation between his two employes. By casually referring to Denzil as “your husband” he so startled the poor woman that she did not attempt to deny the bond. Only once did he use the two words, but he was satisfied. As to the alibi he had not yet troubled her; but to take its existence for granted would upset and discomfort Wimp. For the moment that was triumph enough for Wimp’s guest.

“Par,” said Wilfred Wimp, “what’s a alleybi? A marble?”

“No, my lad,” said Grodman, “it means being somewhere else when you’re supposed to be somewhere.”

“Ah, playing truant,” said Wilfred self-consciously; his schoolmaster had often proved an alibi against him. “Then Denzil will be hanged.”

Was it a prophecy? Wimp accepted it as such; as an oracle from the gods bidding him mistrust Grodman. Out of the mouths of little children issueth wisdom; sometimes even when they are not saying their lessons.

“When I was in my cradle, a century ago,” said Wimp’s grandmother-in-law, “men were hanged for stealing horses.”

They silenced her with snapdragon performances.

Wimp was busy thinking how to get at Grodman’s factotum.

Grodman was busy thinking how to get at Wimp’s domestic.

Neither received any of the usual messages from the Christmas Bells.

The next day was sloppy and uncertain. A thin rain drizzled languidly. One can stand that sort of thing on a summer Bank Holiday; one expects it. But to have a bad December Bank Holiday is too much of a bad thing. Some steps should surely be taken to confuse the weather clerk’s chronology. Once let him know that Bank Holiday is coming, and he writes to the company for more water. To-day his stock seemed low and he was dribbling it out; at times the wintry sun would shine in a feeble, diluted way, and though the holiday-makers would have preferred to take their sunshine neat, they swarmed forth in their myriads whenever there was a ray of hope. But it was only dodging the raindrops; up went the umbrellas again, and the streets became meadows of ambulating mushrooms.

Denzil Cantercot sat in his fur overcoat at the open window, looking at the landscape in water colors. He smoked an after-dinner cigarette, and spoke of the Beautiful. Crowl was with him. They were in the first floor front, Crowl’s bedroom, which, from its view of the Mile End Road, was livelier than the parlor with its outlook on the backyard. Mrs. Crowl was an anti-tobacconist as regards the best bedroom; but Peter did not like to put the poet or his cigarette out. He felt there was something in common between smoke and poetry, over and above their being both Fads. Besides, Mrs. Crowl was sulking in the kitchen. She had been arranging for an excursion with Peter and the children to Victoria Park. She had dreamed of the Crystal Palace, but Santa Claus had put no gifts in the cobbler’s shoes. Now she could not risk spoiling the feather in her bonnet. The nine brats expressed their disappointment by slapping one another on the staircases. Peter felt that Mrs. Crowl connected him in some way with the rainfall, and was unhappy. Was it not enough that he had been deprived of the pleasure of pointing out to a superstitious majority the mutual contradictions of Leviticus and the Song of Solomon? It was not often that Crowl could count on such an audience.

“And you still call Nature beautiful?” he said to Denzil, pointing to the ragged sky and the dripping eaves. “Ugly old scarecrow!”

“Ugly she seems to-day,” admitted Denzil. “But what is Ugliness but a higher form of Beauty? You have to look deeper into it to see it; such vision is the priceless gift of the few. To me this wan desolation of sighing rain is lovely as the sea-washed ruins of cities.”

“Ah, but you wouldn’t like to go out in it,” said Peter Crowl. As he spoke the drizzle suddenly thickened into a torrent.

“We do not always kiss the woman we love.”

“Speak for yourself, Denzil. I’m only a plain man, and I want to know if Nature isn’t a Fad. Hallo, there goes Mortlake! Lord, a minute of this will soak him to the skin.”

The labor leader was walking along with bowed head. He did not seem to mind the shower. It was some seconds before he even heard Crowl’s invitation to him to take shelter. When he did hear it he shook his head.

“I know I can’t offer you a drawing-room with duchesses stuck about it,” said Peter, vexed.

Tom turned the handle of the shop door and went in. There was nothing in the world which now galled him more than the suspicion that he was stuck-up and wished to cut old friends. He picked his way through the nine brats who clung affectionately to his wet knees, dispersing them finally by a jet of coppers to scramble for. Peter met him on the stair and shook his hand lovingly and admiringly, and took him into Mrs. Crowl’s bedroom.

“Don’t mind what I say, Tom. I’m only a plain man, and my tongue will say what comes uppermost! But it ain’t from the soul, Tom, it ain’t from the soul,” said Peter, punning feebly, and letting a mirthless smile play over his sallow features. “You know Mr. Cantercot, I suppose? The poet.”

“Oh, yes; how do you do, Tom? Seen the ‘New Pork Herald’ lately? Not bad, those old times, eh?”

“No,” said Tom, “I wish I was back in them.”

“Nonsense, nonsense,” said Peter, in much concern. “Look at the good you are doing to the working man. Look how you are sweeping away the Fads. Ah, it’s a grand thing to be gifted, Tom. The idea of your chuckin’ yourself away on a composin’ room! Manual labor is all very well for plain men like me, with no gift but just enough brains to see into the realities of things to understand that we’ve got no soul and no immortality, and all that and too selfish to look after anybody’s comfort but my own and mother’s and the kid’s. But men like you and Cantercot it ain’t right that you should be peggin’ away at low material things. Not that I think Cantercot’s gospel’s any value to the masses. The Beautiful is all very well for folks who’ve got nothing else to think of, but give me the True. You’re the man for my money, Mortlake. No reference to the funds, Tom, to which I contribute little enough, Heaven knows; though how a place can know anything, Heaven alone knows. You give us the Useful, Tom; that’s what the world wants more than the Beautiful.”

“Socrates said that the Useful is the Beautiful,” said Denzil.

“That may be,” said Peter, “but the Beautiful ain’t the Useful.”

“Nonsense!” said Denzil. “What about Jessie I mean Miss Dymond? There’s a combination for you. She always reminds me of Grace Darling. How is she, Tom?”

“She’s dead!” snapped Tom.

“What?” Denzil turned as white as a Christmas ghost.

“It was in the papers,” said Tom; “all about her and the lifeboat.”

“Oh, you mean Grace Darling,” said Denzil, visibly relieved. “I meant Miss Dymond.”

“You needn’t be so interested in her,” said Tom, surlily. “She don’t appreciate it. Ah, the shower is over. I must be going.”

“No, stay a little longer, Tom,” pleaded Peter. “I see a lot about you in the papers, but very little of your dear old phiz now. I can’t spare the time to go and hear you. But I really must give myself a treat. When’s your next show?”

“Oh, I am always giving shows,” said Tom, smiling a little. “But my next big performance is on the twenty-first of January, when that picture of poor Mr. Constant is to be unveiled at the Bow Break o’ Day Club. They have written to Gladstone and other big pots to come down. I do hope the old man accepts. A non-political gathering like this is the only occasion we could both speak at, and I have never been on the same platform with Gladstone.”

He forgot his depression and ill-temper in the prospect, and spoke with more animation.

“No, I should hope not, Tom,” said Peter. “What with his Fads about the Bible being a Rock, and Monarchy being the right thing, he is a most dangerous man to lead the Radicals. He never lays his ax to the root of anything except oak trees.”

“Mr. Cantycot!” It was Mrs. Crowl’s voice that broke in upon the tirade. “There’s a gentleman to see you.” The astonishment Mrs. Crowl put into the “gentleman” was delightful. It was almost as good as a week’s rent to her to give vent to her feelings. The controversial couple had moved away from the window when Tom entered, and had not noticed the immediate advent of another visitor who had spent his time profitably in listening to Mrs. Crowl before asking to see the presumable object of his visit.

“Ask him up if it’s a friend of yours, Cantercot,” said Peter. It was Wimp. Denzil was rather dubious as to the friendship, but he preferred to take Wimp diluted. “Mortlake’s upstairs,” he said. “Will you come up and see him?”

Wimp had intended a duologue, but he made no objection, so he, too, stumbled through the nine brats to Mrs. Crowl’s bedroom. It was a queer quartette. Wimp had hardly expected to find anybody at the house on Boxing Day, but he did not care to waste a day. Was not Grodman, too, on the track? How lucky it was that Denzil had made the first overtures, so that he could approach him without exciting suspicion.

Mortlake scowled when he saw the detective. He objected to the police on principle. But Crowl had no idea who the visitor was, even when told his name. He was rather pleased to meet one of Denzil’s high-class friends, and welcomed him warmly. Probably he was some famous editor, which would account for his name stirring vague recollections. He summoned the eldest brat and sent him for beer (people would have their Fads), and not without trepidation called down to “Mother” for glasses. “Mother” observed at night (in the same apartment) that the beer money might have paid the week’s school fees for half the family.

“We were just talking of poor Mr. Constant’s portrait, Mr. Wimp,” said the unconscious Crowl; “they’re going to unveil it, Mortlake tells me, on the twenty-first of next month at the Bow Break o’ Day Club.”

“Ah,” said Wimp, elated at being spared the trouble of maneuvering the conversation; “mysterious affair that, Mr. Crowl.”

“No; it’s the right thing,” said Peter. “There ought to be some memorial of the man in the district where he worked and where he died, poor chap.” The cobbler brushed away a tear.

“Yes, it’s only right,” echoed Mortlake a whit eagerly. “He was a noble fellow, a true philanthropist. The only thoroughly unselfish worker I’ve ever met.”

“He was that,” said Peter; “and it’s a rare pattern is unselfishness. Poor fellow, poor fellow. He preached the Useful, too. I’ve never met his like. Ah, I wish there was a Heaven for him to go to!” He blew his nose violently with a red pocket-handkerchief.

“Well, he’s there, if there is,” said Tom.

“I hope he is,” added Wimp fervently; “but I shouldn’t like to go there the way he did.”

“You were the last person to see him, Tom, weren’t you?” said Denzil.

“Oh, no,” answered Tom quickly. “You remember he went out after me; at least, so Mrs. Drabdump said at the inquest.”

“That last conversation he had with you, Tom,” said Denzil. “He didn’t say anything to you that would lead you to suppose ”

“No, of course not!” interrupted Mortlake impatiently.

“Do you really think he was murdered, Tom?” said Denzil.

“Mr. Wimp’s opinion on that point is more valuable than mine,” replied Tom, testily. “It may have been suicide. Men often get sick of life especially if they are bored,” he added meaningly.

“Ah, but you were the last person known to be with him,” said Denzil.

Crowl laughed. “Had you there, Tom.”

But they did not have Tom there much longer, for he departed, looking even worse-tempered than when he came. Wimp went soon after, and Crowl and Denzil were left to their interminable argumentation concerning the Useful and the Beautiful.

Wimp went west. He had several strings (or cords) to his bow, and he ultimately found himself at Kensal Green Cemetery. Being there, he went down the avenues of the dead to a grave to note down the exact date of a death. It was a day on which the dead seemed enviable. The dull, sodden sky, the dripping, leafless trees, the wet spongy soil, the reeking grass everything combined to make one long to be in a warm, comfortable grave, away from the leaden ennui of life. Suddenly the detective’s keen eye caught sight of a figure that made his heart throb with sudden excitement. It was that of a woman in a gray shawl and a brown bonnet standing before a railed-in grave. She had no umbrella. The rain plashed mournfully upon her, but left no trace on her soaking garments. Wimp crept up behind her, but she paid no heed to him. Her eyes were lowered to the grave, which seemed to be drawing them toward it by some strange morbid fascination. His eyes followed hers. The simple headstone bore the name: “Arthur Constant.”

Wimp tapped her suddenly on the shoulder.

Mrs. Drabdump went deadly white. She turned round, staring at Wimp without any recognition.

“You remember me, surely,” he said. “I’ve been down once or twice to your place about that poor gentleman’s papers.” His eye indicated the grave.

“Lor! I remember you now,” said Mrs. Drabdump.

“Won’t you come under my umbrella? You must be drenched to the skin.”

“It don’t matter, sir. I can’t take no hurt. I’ve had the rheumatics this twenty year.”

Mrs. Drabdump shrank from accepting Wimp’s attentions, not so much perhaps because he was a man as because he was a gentleman. Mrs. Drabdump liked to see the fine folks keep their place, and not contaminate their skirts by contact with the lower castes. “It’s set wet, it’ll rain right into the new year,” she announced. “And they say a bad beginnin’ makes a worse endin’.” Mrs. Drabdump was one of those persons who give you the idea that they just missed being born barometers.

“But what are you doing in this miserable spot, so far from home?” queried the detective.

“It’s Bank Holiday,” Mrs. Drabdump reminded him in tones of acute surprise. “I always make a hexcursion on Bank Holiday.”