THE ABOMINABLE HISTORY OF THE MAN WITH COPPER FINGERS
A Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers

Varden paused, and put away a good mouthful of whisky.

‘Well?’ cried several breathless voices.

‘Well,’ said Varden, ‘I’m not ashamed to say I went out of that house like an old buck-rabbit that hears the man with the gun. There was a car standing just outside, and the driver opened the door. I tumbled in, and then it came over me that the whole thing might be a trap, and I tumbled out again and ran till I reached the trolley-cars. But I found my bags at the station next day, duly registered for Vancouver.

‘When I pulled myself together I did rather wonder what Loder was thinking about my disappearance, but I could no more have gone back into that horrible house than I could have taken poison. I left for Vancouver next morning, and from that day to this I never saw either of those men again. I’ve still not the faintest idea who the fair man was, or what became of him, but I heard in a roundabout way that Loder was dead – in some kind of an accident, I fancy.’

There was a pause. Then:

‘It’s a damned good story, Mr Varden,’ said Armstrong – he was a dabbler in various kinds of handiwork, and was, indeed, chiefly responsible for Mr Arbuthnot’s motion to ban wireless – ‘but are you suggesting there was a complete skeleton inside that silver casting? Do you mean Loder put it into the core of the mould when the casting was done? It would be awfully difficult and dangerous – the slightest accident would have put him at the mercy of his workmen. And that statue must have been considerably over life-size to allow of the skeleton being well covered.’

‘Mr Varden has unintentionally misled you, Armstrong,’ said a quiet, husky voice suddenly from the shadow behind Varden’s chair. ‘The figure was not silver, but electro-plated on a copper base deposited direct on the body. The lady was Sheffield-plated, in fact. I fancy the soft parts of her must have been digested away with pepsin, or some preparation of the kind, after the process was complete, but I can’t be positive about that.’

‘Hullo, Wimsey,’ said Armstrong, ‘was that you came in just now? And why this confident pronouncement?’

The effect of Wimsey’s voice on Varden had been extraordinary. He had leapt to his feet, and turned the lamp so as to light up Wimsey’s face.

‘Good evening, Mr Varden,’ said Lord Peter. ‘I’m delighted to meet you again and to apologise for my unceremonious behaviour on the occasion of our last encounter.’

Varden took the proffered hand, but was speechless.

‘D’you mean to say, you mad mystery-monger, that you were Varden’s Great Unknown?’ demanded Bayes. ‘Ah, well,’ he added rudely, ‘we might have guessed it from his vivid description.’

‘Well, since you’re here,’ said Smith-Hartington, the Morning Yell man, ‘I think you ought to come across with the rest of the story.’

‘Was it just a joke?’ asked Judson.

‘Of course not,’ interrupted Pettifer, before Lord Peter had time to reply. ‘Why should it be? Wimsey’s seen enough queer things not to have to waste his time inventing them.’

‘That’s true enough,’ said Bayes. ‘Comes of having deductive powers and all that sort of thing, and always sticking one’s nose into things that are better not investigated.’

‘That’s all very well, Bayes,’ said his lordship, ‘but if I hadn’t just mentioned the matter to Mr Varden that evening, where would he be?’

‘Ah, where? That’s exactly what we want to know,’ demanded Smith-Hartington. ‘Come on, Wimsey, no shirking; we must have the tale.’

‘And the whole tale,’ added Pettifer.

‘And nothing but the tale,’ said Armstrong, dexterously whisking away the whisky-bottle and the cigars from under Lord Peter’s nose. ‘Get on with it, old son. Not a smoke do you smoke and not a sup do you sip till Burd Ellen is set free.’

‘Brute!’ said his lordship plaintively. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he went on, with a change of tone, ‘it’s not really a story I want to get about. It might land me in a very unpleasant sort of position – manslaughter probably, and murder possibly.’

‘Gosh!’ said Bayes.

‘That’s all right,’ said Armstrong, ‘nobody’s going to talk. We can’t afford to lose you from the club, you know. Smith-Hartington will have to control his passion for copy, that’s all.’

Pledges of discretion having been given all round, Lord Peter settled himself back and began his tale.

 

‘The curious case of Eric P. Loder affords one more instance of the strange manner in which some power beyond our puny human wills arranges the affairs of men. Call it Providence – call it Destiny—’

‘We’ll call it off,’ said Bayes; ‘you can leave out that part.’

Lord Peter groaned and began again.

‘Well, the first thing that made me feel a bit inquisitive about Loder was a casual remark by a man at the Emigration Office in New York, where I happened to go about that silly affair of Mrs Bilt’s. He said, “What on earth is Eric Loder going to do in Australia? I should have thought Europe was more in his line.”

‘“Australia?” I said, “you’re wandering, dear old thing. He told me the other day he was off to Italy in three weeks’ time.”

‘“Italy, nothing,” he said, “he was all over our place today, asking about how you got to Sydney and what were the necessary formalities, and so on.”

‘“Oh,” I said, “I suppose he’s going by the Pacific route, and calling at Sydney on his way.” But I wondered why he hadn’t said so when I’d met him the day before. He had distinctly talked about sailing for Europe and doing Paris before he went on to Rome.

‘I felt so darned inquisitive that I went and called on Loder two nights later.

‘He seemed quite pleased to see me, and was full of his forthcoming trip. I asked him again about his route, and he told me quite distinctly he was going via Paris.

‘Well, that was that, and it wasn’t really any of my business, and we chatted about other things. He told me that Mr Varden was coming to stay with him before he went, and that he hoped to get him to pose for a figure before he left. He said he’d never seen a man so perfectly formed. “I meant to get him to do it before,” he said, “but war broke out, and he went and joined the army before I had time to start.”

‘He was lolling on that beastly couch of his at the time, and, happening to look round at him, I caught such a nasty sort of glitter in his eye that it gave me quite a turn. He was stroking the figure over the neck and grinning at it.

‘“None of your efforts in Sheffield plate, I hope,” said I.

‘“Well,” he said, “I thought of making a kind of companion to this, The Sleeping Athlete, you know, or something of that sort.”

‘“You’d much better cast it,” I said. “Why did you put the stuff on so thick? It destroys the fine detail.”

‘That annoyed him. He never liked to hear any objection made to that work of art.

‘“This was experimental,” he said. “I mean the next to be a real masterpiece. You’ll see.”

‘We’d got to about that point when the butler came in to ask should he make up a bed for me, as it was such a bad night. We hadn’t noticed the weather particularly, though it had looked a bit threatening when I started from New York. However, we now looked out, and saw that it was coming down in sheets and torrents. It wouldn’t have mattered, only that I’d only brought a little open racing car and no overcoat, and certainly the prospect of five miles in that downpour wasn’t altogether attractive. Loder urged me to stay, and I said I would.

‘I was feeling a bit fagged, so I went to bed right off. Loder said he wanted to do a bit of work in the studio first, and I saw him depart along the corridor.

‘You won’t allow me to mention Providence, so I’ll only say it was a very remarkable thing that I should have woken up at two in the morning to find myself lying in a pool of water. The man had stuck a hot-water bottle into the bed, because it hadn’t been used just lately, and the beastly thing had gone and unstoppered itself. I lay awake for ten minutes in the deeps of damp misery before I had sufficient strength of mind to investigate. Then I found it was hopeless – sheets, blankets, mattress, all soaked. I looked at the arm-chair, and then I had a brilliant idea. I remembered there was a lovely great divan in the studio, with a big skin rug and a pile of cushions. Why not finish the night there? I took the little electric torch which always goes about with me, and started off.

‘The studio was empty, so I supposed Loder had finished and trotted off to roost. The divan was there, all right, with a screen drawn partly across it, so I rolled myself up under the rug and prepared to snooze off.

‘I was just getting beautifully sleepy again when I heard footsteps, not in the passage, but apparently on the other side of the room. I was surprised, because I didn’t know there was any way out in that direction. I lay low, and presently I saw a streak of light appear from the cupboard where Loder kept his tools and things. The streak widened, and Loder emerged, carrying an electric torch. He closed the cupboard door very gently after him, and padded across the studio. He stopped before the easel and uncovered it; I could see him through a crack in the screen. He stood for some minutes gazing at a sketch on the easel, and then gave one of the nastiest gurgly laughs I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. If I’d ever seriously thought of announcing my unauthorised presence, I abandoned all idea of it then. Presently he covered the easel again, and went out by the door at which I had come in.

‘I waited till I was sure he had gone, and then got up – uncommonly quietly, I may say. I tiptoed over to the easel to see what the fascinating work of art was. I saw at once it was the design for the figure of The Sleeping Athlete, and as I looked at it I felt a sort of horrid conviction stealing over me. It was an idea which seemed to begin in my stomach, and work its way up to the roots of my hair.

‘My family say I’m too inquisitive. I can only say that wild horses wouldn’t have kept me from investigating that cupboard. With the feeling that something absolutely vile might hop out at me – I was a bit wrought up, and it was a rotten time of night – I put a heroic hand on the door knob.

‘To my astonishment, the thing wasn’t even locked. It opened at once, to show a range of perfectly innocent and orderly shelves, which couldn’t possibly have held Loder.

‘My blood was up, you know, by this time, so I hunted round for the spring-lock which I knew must exist, and found it without much difficulty. The back of the cupboard swung noiselessly inwards, and I found myself at the top of a narrow flight of stairs.

‘I had the sense to stop and see that the door could be opened from the inside before I went any farther, and I also selected a good stout pestle which I found on the shelves as a weapon in case of accident. Then I closed the door and tripped with elf-like lightness down that jolly old staircase.

‘There was another door at the bottom, but it didn’t take me long to fathom the secret of that. Feeling frightfully excited, I threw it boldly open, with the pestle ready for action.’

‘However, the room seemed to be empty. My torch caught the gleam of something liquid, and then I found the wall-switch.

‘I saw a biggish square room, fitted up as a workshop. On the right-hand wall was a big switchboard, with a bench beneath it. From the middle of the ceiling hung a great flood-light, illuminating a glass vat, fully seven feet long by about three wide. I turned on the flood-light, and looked down into the vat. It was filled with a dark brown liquid which I recognised as the usual compound of cyanide and copper-sulphate which they use for copper-plating.

The rods hung over it with their hooks all empty, but there was a packing-case half-opened at one side of the room, and, pulling the covering aside, I could see rows of copper anodes – enough of them to put a plating over a quarter of an inch thick on a life-size figure. There was a smaller case, still nailed up, which from its weight and appearance I guessed to contain the silver for the rest of the process. There was something else I was looking for, and I soon found it – a considerable quantity of prepared graphite and a big jar of varnish.

‘Of course, there was no evidence, really, of anything being on the cross. There was no reason why Loder shouldn’t make a plaster cast and Sheffield-plate it if he had a fancy for that kind of thing. But then I found something that couldn’t have come there legitimately.

‘On the bench was an oval slab of copper about an inch and a half long – Loder’s night’s work, I guessed. It was an electrotype of the American Consular seal, the thing they stamp on your passport photograph to keep you from hiking it off and substituting the picture of your friend Mr Jiggs, who would like to get out of the country because he is so popular with Scotland Yard.

‘I sat down on Loder’s stool, and worked out that pretty little plot in all its details. I could see it all turned on three things. First of all, I must find out if Varden was proposing to make tracks shortly for Australia, because, if he wasn’t, it threw all my beautiful theories out. And, secondly, it would help matters greatly if he happened to have dark hair like Loder’s, as he has, you see – near enough, anyway, to fit the description on a passport. I’d only seen him in that Apollo Belvedere thing, with a fair wig on. But I knew if I hung about I should see him presently when he came to stay with Loder. And, thirdly, of course, I had to discover if Loder was likely to have any grounds for a grudge against Varden.

‘Well, I figured out I’d stayed down in that room about as long as was healthy. Loder might come back at any moment, and I didn’t forget that a vatful of copper sulphate and cyanide of potassium would be a highly handy means of getting rid of a too-inquisitive guest. And I can’t say I had any great fancy for figuring as part of Loder’s domestic furniture. I’ve always hated things made in the shape of things – volumes of Dickens that turn out to be a biscuit-tin, and dodges like that; and, though I take no overwhelming interest in my own funeral, I should like it to be in good taste. I went so far as to wipe away any finger-marks I might have left behind me, and then I went back to the studio and rearranged that divan. I didn’t feel Loder would care to think I’d been down there.

‘There was just one other thing I felt inquisitive about. I tiptoed back through the hall and into the smoking-room. The silver couch glimmered in the light of the torch. I felt I disliked it fifty times more than ever before. However, I pulled myself together and took a careful look at the feet of the figure. I’d heard all about that second toe of Maria Morano’s.

‘I passed the rest of the night in the arm-chair after all.

‘What with Mrs Bilt’s job and one thing and another, and the enquiries I had to make, I had to put off my interference in Loder’s little game till rather late. I found out that Varden had been staying with Loder a few months before the beautiful Maria Morano had vanished. I’m afraid I was rather stupid about that, Mr Varden. I thought perhaps there had been something.’

‘Don’t apologise,’ said Varden, with a little laugh. ‘Cinema actors are notoriously immoral.’

‘Why rub it in?’ said Wimsey, a trifle hurt. ‘I apologise. Anyway, it came to the same thing as far as Loder was concerned. Then there was one bit of evidence I had to get to be absolutely certain. Electro-plating – especially such a ticklish job as the one I had in mind – wasn’t a job that could be finished in a night; on the other hand, it seemed necessary that Mr Varden should be seen alive in New York up to the day he was scheduled to depart. It was also clear that Loder meant to be able to prove that a Mr Varden had left New York all right, according to plan, and had actually arrived in Sydney. Accordingly, a false Mr Varden was to depart with Varden’s papers and Varden’s passport furnished with a new photograph duly stamped with the Consular stamp, and to disappear quietly at Sydney and be retransformed into Mr Eric Loder, travelling with a perfectly regular passport of his own. Well, then, in that case, obviously a cablegram would have to be sent off to Mystofilms Ltd., warning them to expect Varden by a later boat than he had arranged. I handed over this part of the job to my man, Bunter, who is uncommonly capable. The devoted fellow shadowed Loder faithfully for getting on for three weeks, and at length, the very day before Mr Varden was due to depart, the cablegram was sent from an office in Broadway, where, by a happy providence (once more) they supply extremely hard pencils.’

‘By Jove!’ cried Varden, ‘I remember now being told something about a cablegram when I got out, but I never connected it with Loder. I thought it was just some stupidity of the Western Electric people.’

‘Quite so. Well, as soon as I’d got that, I popped along to Loder’s with a picklock in one pocket and an automatic in the other. The good Bunter went with me, and, if I didn’t return by a certain time, had orders to telephone for the police. So you see everything was pretty well covered. Bunter was the chauffeur who was waiting for you, Mr Varden, but you turned suspicious – I don’t blame you altogether – so all we could do was to forward your luggage along to the train.

‘On the way out we met the Loder servants en route for New York in a car, which showed us that we were on the right track, and also that I was going to have a fairly simple job of it.

‘You’ve heard all about my interview with Mr Varden. I really don’t think I could improve upon his account. When I’d seen him and his traps safely off the premises, I made for the studio. It was empty, so I opened the secret door, and, as I expected, saw a line of light under the workshop door at the far end of the passage.’

‘So Loder was there all the time?’

‘Of course he was. I took my little pop-gun tight in my fist and opened the door very gently. Loder was standing between the tank and the switchboard, very busy indeed – so busy he didn’t hear me come in. His hands were black with graphite, a big heap of which was spread on a sheet on the floor, and he was engaged with a long, springy coil of copper wire, running to the output of the transformer. The big packing-case had been opened, and all the hooks were occupied.

‘ “Loder!’ I said.

‘He turned on me with a face like nothing human. “Wimsey!” he shouted, “what the hell are you doing here?”

‘ “I have come,” I said, “to tell you that I know how the apple gets into the dumpling.” And I showed him the automatic.

‘He gave a great yell and dashed at the switchboard, turning out the light, so that I could not see to aim. I heard him leap at me – and then there came in the darkness a crash and a splash – and a shriek such as I never heard – not in five years of war – and never want to hear again.

‘I groped forward for the switchboard. Of course, I turned on everything before I could lay my hand on the light, but I got it at last – a great white glare from the floodlight over the vat.

‘He lay there, still twitching faintly. Cyanide, you see, is about the swiftest and painfullest thing out. Before I could move to do anything, I knew he was dead – poisoned and drowned and dead. The coil of wire that had tripped him had gone into the vat with him. Without thinking, I touched it, and got a shock that pretty well staggered me. Then I realised that I must have turned on the current when I was hunting for the light. I looked into the vat again. As he fell, his dying hands had clutched at the wire. The coils were tight round his fingers, and the current was methodically depositing a film of copper all over his hands, which were blackened with the graphite.

‘I had just sense enough to realise that Loder was dead, and that it might be a nasty sort of look-out for me if the thing came out, for I’d certainly gone along to threaten him with a pistol.

‘I searched about till I found some solder and an iron. Then I went upstairs and called in Bunter, who had done his ten miles in record time. We went into the smoking-room and soldered the arm of that cursed figure into place again, as well as we could, and then we took everything back into the workshop. We cleaned off every finger-print and removed every trace of our presence. We left the light and the switchboard as they were, and returned to New York by an extremely roundabout route. The only thing we brought away with us was the facsimile of the Consular seal, and that we threw into the river.

‘Loder was found by the butler next morning. We read in the papers how he had fallen into the vat when engaged on some experiments in electro-plating. The ghastly fact was commented upon that the dead man’s hands were thickly coppered over. They couldn’t get it off without irreverent violence, so he was buried like that.

‘That’s all. Please, Armstrong, may I have my whisky-and-soda now?’

‘What happened to the couch?’ enquired Smith-Hartington presently.

‘I bought it at the sale of Loder’s things,’ said Wimsey, ‘and got hold of a dear old Catholic priest I knew, to whom I told the whole story under strict vow of secrecy. He was a very sensible and feeling old bird; so one moonlight night Bunter and I carried the thing out in the car to his own little church, some miles out of the city, and gave it Christian burial in a corner of the graveyard.'


       'It seemed the best thing to do.’

 

 

 

HTML layout and style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide.
Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.