The Secret Vanguard

The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes Read Free Book Online

Book: The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes Read Free Book Online
Authors: Michael Innes
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would, thought Appleby, be much too much. For by the time any reader could have replied Ploss was dead. He had been shot on a Friday night and this odd little letter had appeared in print two days later. When had it been written? The chatty parts of voluminous Sunday newspapers were probably put in type very early in the week… Appleby picked up a telephone and spent fifteen minutes finding out. It appeared that normally a letter received later than Wednesday was unlikely to appear in the issue next succeeding. But in this particular case it was not so. Another letter had been withdrawn and the responsible sub-editor when searching for a suitable substitute on the Friday morning had noticed Ploss’ name and sent his letter up to the compositors. It had come in only that morning and was dated from his club on the previous day, Thursday. And Thursday, Appleby remembered, had seen Ploss’ last expedition to town.
    These were surely what Hetherton might call otiose inquiries. And was it not Hetherton who had once remarked to him with mild severity that thoroughness was an indifferent substitute for logic? Appleby got up, walked to his window, and looked out over the Embankment and the river. What logic could possibly connect with Ploss’ death this futile belletristic inquiry which had been one of his last acts on earth? And what light was likely to be gained from the crepuscular recesses of Dr Borer’s Library? But then – he glanced at the fragment of newsprint again – what did Ploss mean by writing that he had heard the poem repeated in somewhat peculiar circumstances …? Appleby reached for his hat.
    It was the time of year in which London is theoretically dusty and jaded; ‘empty’ even, if one has a certain point of view. Crossing Trafalgar Square to go up Charing Cross Road, Appleby tried to imagine it as empty indeed. There floated into his head a sinister composition of Chirico’s: a dream picture of vast deserted streets and colonnades, peopled only by a single enigmatic shadow. Like that, perhaps. Only it was impossible to imagine, really. Impossible despite hints and promptings enough. For the city could no longer be called normal – or could no longer be called normal simply. It was normal and waiting: the contradiction alone could express it. Waiting. And when everything waits one has an instinct to hurry. Appleby, who liked to get about London walking, found himself hurrying. It might help if he hurried. It might help if he hurried to Bloomsbury and discovered whether poet Ploss had been getting up Bishop Sweetapple in Dr Borer’s Library.
    He hailed a taxi – not because of these irrational speculations but because his time, after all, belonged to a Secretary of State. And in five minutes the taxi, much as if it had been a contraption in a scientific romance, deposited him at the threshold of the eighteenth century. Strange how these severe façades satisfied the mind. Or rather not strange; nothing subtle or inspired was involved – nothing more, probably, than observance of the law of golden section. Strange rather that as if by some act of vast inattention people had just ceased to build that way… Appleby ran up the steps and rang the bell. It was the sort of bell, very evidently, that does not really ring.
    He went in, fingering a card to send to Mr Tufton. The place smelt of old leather, tobacco smoke, indifferent drains, and China tea. On the left an Adam staircase, much encumbered with books and papers, swept upwards to a remote skylight; before him hung a large portrait of Dr Borer; from a room on the right came the slow tap-tap of a typewriter inexpertly employed. Appleby turned right. The typewriter was very old; it was being used by a lady who was older still; it was being used, nevertheless, as if it were an intriguing new toy. ‘Can you tell me,’ said Appleby, ‘where I may find Mr Tufton?’
    The old lady glanced dimly up from her keyboard. ‘Mr Tufton?’ she said dubiously.

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