Mr Mortimer 3 pages




As Norman Conquest strode along the empty country road his feet crunched in the crisp snow, and he sang. There was a laugh in his lilting baritone voice and a deadly purpose in his heart.

The full moon shone out of a cloudless sky, and the Buckinghamshire countryside, with its mantle of frozen white, had a Christmas-card look which awoke in Norman Conquest every atom of his long dormant love of country. He had been in England just twenty-four hours, and England looked good, and he sang.

There was an unrestrained enthusiasm in his performance; a blithe disregard of the public weal, which may be accounted for by the fact that nine out of every ten of his blood corpuscles were of the exact size, shape and description of those which had flowed so recklessly on Flodden Field in 1513. For Norman was a native of Cumberland, and for generations his people on his father's side had been staunch and sturdy dalesmen; and his ancestors, long known as the "Lawless Conquests," had fought under the Percies in the Border Wars.

  "Just whistle while you work. . . .

        Put on that grin and start right in,

           To whistle loud and long.

Just hum a merry tune. . . "'

His own whistle, introduced at the appropriate periods, was so hot that it nearly melted the snow. He had learned the lilting song from the dance orchestra on the liner which had brought him from the East.

  "Just do your best, then take a rest,

  And sing yourself a song.

When there's too much to do,

  Don't let it bother you,

Forget your trouble,

  Try to be just like the cheerful chickadee,

And whistle while you work. . . ."

Norman turned a bend in the road, and this brought him in view of a building of sorts which stood starkly in the moonlight on top of a rise. He interrupted his song with a gale of mischievous laughter that struck the face of the building and came echoing back to him like a broadcast by the B.B..C. male voice choir. That building on the rise seemed to amuse Norman. He was unique in this respect, for the inhabitants of the countryside regarded it, quite justifiably, as a "blot." It was a hideous, ultra-modern eruption of steel and concrete with a lopsided, ill-balanced tower, and curved corner windows and balconies which looked as though they had been stuck on as an afterthought. The architect by this time had probably been led, quietly but firmly, into the kindly seclusion of Colney Hatch.

Norman Conquest found himself abreast of a gateway which gave upon a drive, and the gateway matched the parent building. One octagonal concrete post was much higher than the other, and the gate itself looked like something which had been rejected by the director of "Things to Come." Standing with his back to this atrocity -thereby revealing his common sense - was a large and comfortably furnished man in the uniform of the law. He regarded Norman Conquest with suspicious disapproval.

"Was that you making all that hullabaloo?" he asked bluntly.

"If you are thus disrespectfully referring to my recent song, yes," admitted Norman. "The peace and charm of the English countryside got right in amongst my vitals, and a spot of 'Snow White' music seemed to be indicated."

"It nearly knocked the house down," said the constable.

"A pity. I should have sung louder."

"Is your name Conquest, by any chance?" asked the policeman, taking a step nearer, and giving Norman a hard, searching look. "Mr. Mortimer told me to be here - "

"Good old Uncle Geoffrey," said Norman tranquilly. "Always so thoughtful. Well, Horatius, stand aside, and let me pass. I shall probably be seeing you later."

"Not much later, if I'm any judge," retorted the policeman darkly.

Norman chuckled as he strode briskly up the drive, and behind the dancing light in his quartz-grey eyes there was a sudden imp of almost devilish amusement.

Within the house two men sat in an apartment which Mr. Geoffrey Mortimer called his library. It almost exactly resembled a film set, with its freakish ultra-modern furniture. Mr. Mortimer sat behind an imposing desk which appeared to be made of black glass relieved with bars of chromium. He was a fat and unhealthy-looking man in the middle fifties; his eyes were small and pig-like, and they were not only protected by horn-rimmed spectacles, but by several rounds of soft, flabby flesh. His chins, several in number, overflowed his collar like a mass of dough which had been left to rise and then forgotten. He sat as though listening, his eyes on a small clock which registered seven-fifty-five, his gross fingers drumming nervously on the arms of his chair. Altogether, a piece of work for which his parents, if alive, deserved the strongest condemnation.

"Well, thank God, this damned waiting is nearly over," he said abruptly. "Less than five minutes now."

"Think he'll come?" asked the other man.

He was sitting on the edge of a big easy-chair of revolutionary design, and he looked as uncomfortable as he felt. He was a square-headed, clean-shaven man, and he was still wearing his overcoat, and in one hand he held a hard bowler hat. Mortimer gave him a look which was no compliment to his intelligence.