They Wouldn't Be Chessmen by A. E. W. Mason

They Wouldn't Be Chessmen

subjects: Crime & Mystery Fiction

Description

Inspector Hanaud, Mason’s cunning French detective, investigates a plot to steal a priceless pearl necklace belonging to the Rajah of Chitipur. A young opera singer is involved, along with her vanished accomplice. All is not as it appears and the many characters refuse to permit themselves to be moved about like pawns by the mastermind. They Wouldn’t Be Chessmen is thought by many to be the best of the Hanaud series.

Excerpt

A small wizened man stood on the top step of the Prince Town Cinema and watched the raindrops bounce up from the pavement like steel beads. It was an afternoon late in January, and growing dark. The little man wore a suit of threadbare shoddy so much too big for him that it was drapery rather than clothes, and his rusty billycock hat would have hidden the bridge of his nose but for the protuberant flaps of his ears. The rain was tropical, a sheet of glistening filaments with the patter of innumerable small feet, and the cold had the raw creeping chill which eats the hope out of the heart. The little man shivered.

Behind and above him the lights in the Cinema Hall went out, when they should have gone on. Big men, bearded and moustached and clean-shaven, but all of them muscle and bone and trim with the trimness of disciplined officials, slipped on their mackintoshes and tramped off behind the screen of water. Not one of them had a word for the small scarecrow on the top of the steps. But the last of them, a burly giant, stopped to button the collar of his raincoat about his throat. The little man spoke with an insinuating whine.

“Mr. Langridge, sir, I don’t know what I’m going to do for to-night.”

All the good humour went out of Mr. Langridge’s face. “You, Budden?” he answered grimly. “You do just what you like. You’re a gentleman at large. You’ve the key of the street.”

“Without the price of a fag,” said Mr. Budden bitterly.

During the last few days the Prince Town Cinema had become a Court of Assize. A savage mutiny had broken out during November of the last year in the great convict prison up the road. The offices had been burned to a shell. An effort had been made to hang the Governor. This afternoon the long trial of the mutineers had come to an end, and of all of them just one had been acquitted—Mike Budden, the pitiable little man in the outsize clothes shivering on the top of the steps.

Nicholas Langridge, the big warder, reluctantly pulled a packet of Woodbines from his pocket.

“Here’s one,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Langridge,” declared Budden. “I always said—”

“You’re a liar,” Langridge interrupted. “Here’s a light.”

“Thank you, Mr. Langridge.”

Mike Budden took off his hat to shield the match from the rain, but he would have done better to have kept it on. Before, he had been little and squalid, a figure of fun for schoolboys and a reproach to men beyond their teens. But with his hat off he became definitely significant, and evil as a toad. He had a broad, flat and furrowed face, the colour of yellowish clay, and his bald head was seamed with red scars and the white lines of a surgeon’s stitches. A pair of small, black, quick eyes were sunk deep between reddened eyelids, and he had the strong teeth of a rodent. In olden days he would have been matched against a rat with his hands tied behind his back, and he would have carried the big money.

Nicholas Langridge, however, was now too used to his face to be afflicted by it any more. He looked down at Mike Budden’s clothes and laughed.

“They rigged you up proper at Exeter,” he said.

Budden’s sentence had expired when he was on remand for his share in the mutiny, and he had spent the intervening weeks in the prison at Exeter.

“Yus, they was cruel to me, Mr. Langridge,” he whined. “Fairly sniggered at me in these old slops. Not English, you know, Mr. Langridge, no, not English. Now you, Mr. Langridge…”

“I’m a foreigner too,” said Langridge drily. “Why, you old rascal, you ought to go down on your knees in a puddle and thank ‘em all at Exeter for their kindness. You had your head shaved, too, I see, so as you could pretend all those old scars were Christmas presents from us. What with the cheek of that lie and your age and your concertina trousers, you made the jury laugh so that they hadn’t got enough breath left to convict you. Fairly put it over them, didn’t you?”

Mike Budden grinned for a moment and then thrust out his under-lip.

“I overdone it, Mr. Langridge, sir. That’s the truth.”

“Overdone it?” the warder cried sharply. “What do you mean by that?”

Mike Budden turned a blank face and a pair of expressionless eyes upon the warder. For half a minute he stood silent. Then he answered in an even, white voice which matched the vacancy of his face:

“What I mean, Mr. Langridge—look at that there rain. Torrentuous, I call it. It’s all very well for you, but I ain’t used to it, am I?”

And Mike was right. Nearer to seventy years of age than sixty, he had spent nearer to forty of them than thirty in the dry retirement of his country’s prisons. Langridge the warder might tramp backwards and forwards between his cottage and the gaol in weather torrentuous or otherwise. Mike Budden kept his feet dry.

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