The Case of the Discontented Soldier
Written by Agatha Christie, narrated by Hugh Fraser

 

Major Wilbraham hesitated outside the door of Mr Parker Pyne’s office to read, not for the first time, the advertisement from the morning paper which had brought him there. It was simple enough:

Are You Happy?
If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne
17 Richmond Street

The major took a deep breath and abruptly plunged through the swing door leading to the outer office. A plain young woman looked up from her typewriter and glanced at him inquiringly.

‘Mr Parker Pyne?’ said Major Wilbraham, blushing.

‘Come this way, please.’

He followed her into an inner office – into the presence of the bland Mr Parker Pyne.

‘Good-morning,’ said Mr Pyne. ‘Sit down, won’t you? And now tell me what I can do for you.’

‘My name is Wilbraham –’ began the other.

‘Major? Colonel?’ said Mr Pyne.

‘Major.’

‘Ah! And recently returned from abroad? India? East Africa?’

‘East Africa.’

‘A fine country, I believe. Well, so you are home again – and you don’t like it. Is that the trouble?’

‘You’re absolutely right. Though how you knew –’

Mr Parker Pyne waved an impressive hand. ‘It is my business to know. You see, for thirty-five years of my life I have been engaged in the compiling of statistics in a government office. Now I have retired and it has occurred to me to use the experience I have gained in a novel fashion. It is all so simple. Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads – no more I assure you. Once you know the cause of a malady, the remedy should not be impossible.

‘I stand in the place of the doctor. The doctor first diagnoses the patient’s disorder, then he recommends a course of treatment. There are cases where no treatment can be of any avail. If that is so, I say quite frankly that I can do nothing about it. But if I undertake a case, the cure is practically guaranteed.

‘I can assure you. Major Wilbraham, that ninety-six percent of retired empire builders – as I call them – are unhappy. They exchange an active life, a life full of responsibility, a life of possible danger, for – what? Straitened means, a dismal climate and a general feeling of being a fish out of water.’

‘All you’ve said is true,’ said the major. ‘It’s the boredom I object to. The boredom and the endless tittle-tattle about petty village matters. But what can I do about it? I’ve got a little money besides my pension. I’ve a nice cottage near Cobham. I can’t afford to hunt or shoot or fish. I’m not married. My neighbours are all pleasant folk, but they’ve no ideas beyond this island.’

‘The long and short of the matter is that you find life tame,’ said Mr Parker Pyne.

‘Damned tame.’

‘You would like excitement, possibly danger?’ asked Mr Pyne.

The soldier shrugged. ‘There’s no such thing in this tinpot country.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr Pyne seriously. ‘There you are wrong. There is plenty of danger, plenty of excitement, here in London if you know where to go for it. You have seen only the surface of our English life, calm, pleasant. But there is another side. If you wish it, I can show you that other side.’

Major Wilbraham regarded him thoughtfully. There was something reassuring about Mr Pyne. He was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes. And he had an aura – an aura of dependability.

‘I should warn you, however,’ continued Mr Pyne, ‘that there is an element of risk.’

The soldier’s eye brightened. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. Then, abruptly: ‘And – your fees?’

‘My fee,’ said Mr Pyne, ‘is fifty pounds, payable in advance. If in a month’s time you are still in the same state of boredom, I will refund your money.’

Wilbraham considered. ‘Fair enough,’ he said at last. ‘I agree. I’ll give you a cheque now.’

The transaction was completed. Mr Parker Pyne pressed a buzzer on his desk.

‘It is now one o’clock,’ he said. ‘I am going to ask you to take a young lady out to lunch.’ The door opened. ‘Ah, Madeleine, my dear, let me introduce Major Wilbraham, who is going to take you out to lunch.’

Wilbraham blinked slightly, which was hardly to be wondered at. The girl who entered the room was dark, languorous, with wonderful eyes and long black lashes, a perfect complexion and a voluptuous scarlet mouth. Her exquisite clothes set off the swaying grace of her figure. From head to foot she was perfect.

‘Er – delighted,’ said Major Wilbraham.

‘Miss de Sara,’ said Mr Parker Pyne.

‘How very kind of you,’ murmured Madeleine de Sara.

‘I have your address here,’ announced Mr Parker Pyne. ‘Tomorrow morning you will receive my further instructions.’

Major Wilbraham and the lovely Madeleine departed.

It was three o’clock when Madeleine returned.

Mr Parker Pyne looked up. ‘Well?’ he demanded.

Madeleine shook her head. ‘Scared of me,’ she said. ‘Thinks I’m a vamp.’

‘I thought as much,’ said Mr Parker Pyne. ‘You carried out my instructions?’

‘Yes. We discussed the occupants of the other tables freely. The type he likes is fair-haired, blue-eyed, slightly anaemic, not too tall.’

‘That should be easy,’ said Mr Pyne. ‘Get me Schedule B and let me see what we have in stock at present.’ He ran his finger down a list, finally stopping at a name. ‘Freda Clegg. Yes, I think Freda Clegg will do excellently. I had better see Mrs Oliver about it.’

The next day Major Wilbraham received a note, which read:

On Monday morning next at eleven o’clock go to Eaglemont, Friars Lane, Hampstead, and ask for Mr Jones. You will represent yourself as coming from the Guava Shipping Company.

 

Obediently on the following Monday (which happened to be Bank Holiday), Major Wilbraham set out for Eaglemont, Friars Lane. He set out, I say, but he never got there. For before he got there, something happened.

All the world and his wife seemed to be on their way to Hampstead. Major Wilbraham got entangled in crowds, suffocated in the tube and found it hard to discover the whereabouts of Friars Lane.

Friars Lane was a cul-de-sac, a neglected road full of ruts, with houses on either side standing back from the road. They were largish houses which had seen better days and had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Wilbraham walked along peering at the half-erased names on the gate-posts, when suddenly he heard something that made him stiffen to attention. It was a kind of gurgling, half-choked cry.

It came again and this time it was faintly recognizable as the word ‘Help!’ It came from inside the wall of the house he was passing.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Major Wilbraham pushed open the rickety gate and sprinted noiselessly up the weed-covered drive. There in the shrubbery was a girl struggling in the grasp of two enormous Negroes. She was putting up a brave fight, twisting and turning and kicking. One Negro held his hand over her mouth in spite of her furious efforts to get her head free.

Intent on their struggle with the girl, neither of the blacks had noticed Wilbraham’s approach. The first they knew of it was when a violent punch on the jaw sent the man who was covering the girl’s mouth reeling backwards. Taken by surprise, the other man relinquished his hold of the girl and turned. Wilbraham was ready for him. Once again his fist shot out, and the Negro reeled backwards and fell. Wilbraham turned on the other man, who was closing in behind him.

But the two men had had enough. The second one rolled over, sat up; then, rising, he made a dash for the gate. His companion followed suit. Wilbraham started after them, but changed his mind and turned towards the girl, who was leaning against a tree, panting.

‘Oh, thank you!’ she gasped. ‘It was terrible.’

Major Wilbraham saw for the first time who it was he had rescued so opportunely. She was a girl of about twenty-one or two, fair-haired and blue-eyed, pretty in a rather colourless way.

‘If you hadn’t come!’ she gasped.

‘There, there,’ said Wilbraham soothingly. ‘It’s all right now. I think, though, that we’d better get away from here. It’s possible those fellows might come back.’

A faint smile came to the girl’s lips. ‘I don’t think they will – not after the way you hit them. Oh, it was splendid of you!’

Major Wilbraham blushed under the warmth of her glance of admiration. ‘Nothin’ at all,’ he said indistinctly. ‘All in day’s work. Lady being annoyed. Look here, if you take my arm, can you walk? It’s been a nasty shock, I know.’

‘I’m all right now,’ said the girl. However, she took the proffered arm. She was still rather shaky. She glanced behind her at the house as they emerged through the gate. ‘I can’t understand it,’ she murmured. ‘That’s clearly an empty house.’

‘It’s empty, right enough,’ agreed the major, looking up at the shuttered windows and general air of decay.

‘And yet it is Whitefriars.’ She pointed to a half-obliterated name on the gate. ‘And Whitefriars was the place I was to go.’

‘Don’t worry about anything now,’ said Wilbraham. ‘In a minute or two we’ll be able to get a taxi. Then we’ll drive somewhere and have a cup of coffee.’

At the end of the lane they came out into a more frequented street, and by good fortune a taxi had just set down a fare at one of the houses. Wilbraham hailed it, gave an address to the driver and they got in.

‘Don’t try to talk,’ he admonished his companion. ‘Just lie back. You’ve had a nasty experience.’

She smiled at him gratefully.

‘By the way – er – my name is Wilbraham.’

‘Mine is Clegg – Freda Clegg.’

Ten minutes later, Freda was sipping hot coffee and looking gratefully across a small table at her rescuer.

‘It seems like a dream,’ she said. ‘A bad dream.’ She shuddered. ‘And only a short while ago I was wishing for something to happen – anything! Oh, I don’t like adventures.’

‘Tell me how it happened.’

‘Well, to tell you properly I shall have to talk a lot about myself, I’m afraid.’

‘An excellent subject,’ said Wilbraham, with a bow.

‘I am an orphan. My father – he was a sea captain – died when I was eight. My mother died three years ago. I work in the city. I am with the Vacuum Gas Company – a clerk. One evening last week I found a gentleman waiting to see me when I returned to my lodgings. He was a lawyer, a Mr Reid from Melbourne.

‘He was very polite and asked me several questions about my family. He explained that he had known my father many years ago. In fact, he had transacted some legal business for him. Then he told me the object of his visit. “Miss Clegg,” he said, “I have reason to suppose that you might benefit as the result of a financial transaction entered into by your father several years before he died.” I was very much surprised, of course.

‘“It is unlikely that you would ever have heard anything of the matter,’ he explained. “John Clegg never took the affair seriously, I fancy. However, it has materialized unexpectedly, but I am afraid any claim you might put in would depend on your ownership of certain papers. These papers would be part of your father’s estate, and of course it is possible that they have been destroyed as worthless. Have you kept any of your father’s papers?’

‘I explained that my mother had kept various things of my father’s in an old sea chest. I had looked through it cursorily, but had discovered nothing of interest.

‘“You would hardly be likely to recognize the importance of these documents, perhaps,” he said, smiling.

‘Well, I went to the chest, took out the few papers it contained and brought them to him. He looked at them, but said it was impossible to say off-hand what might or might not be connected with the matter in question. He would take them away with him and would communicate with me if anything turned up.

‘By the last post on Saturday I received a letter from him in which he suggested that I come to his house to discuss the matter. He gave me the address: Whitefriars, Friars Lane, Hampstead. I was to be there at a quarter to eleven this morning.

‘I was a little late finding the place. I hurried through the gate and up towards the house, when suddenly those two dreadful men sprang at me from the bushes. I hadn’t time to cry out. One man put his hand over my mouth. I wrenched my head free and screamed for help. Luckily you heard me. If it hadn’t been for you –’ She stopped. Her looks were more eloquent than further words.

‘Very glad I happened to be on the spot. By Gad, I’d like to get hold of those two brutes. You’d never seen them before, I suppose?’

She shook her head. ‘What do you think it means?’

‘Difficult to say. But one thing seems pretty sure. There’s something someone wants among your father’s papers. This man Reid told you a cock-and-bull story so as to get the opportunity of looking through them. Evidently what he wanted wasn’t there.’

‘Oh!’ said Freda. ‘I wonder. When I got home on Saturday I thought my things had been tampered with. To tell you the truth, I suspected my landlady of having pried about in my room out of curiosity. But now –’

‘Depend upon it, that’s it. Someone gained admission to your room and searched it, without finding what he was after. He suspected that you knew the value of this paper, whatever it was, and that you carried it about on your person. So he planned this ambush. If you had it with you, it would have been taken from you. If not, you would have been held prisoner while he tried to make you tell where it was hidden.’

‘But what can it possibly be?’ cried Freda.

‘I don’t know. But it must be something pretty good for him to go to this length.’

‘It doesn’t seem possible.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Your father was a sailor. He went to out-of-the-way places. He might have come across something the value of which he never knew.’

‘Do you really think so?’ A pink flush of excitement showed in the girl’s pale cheeks.

‘I do indeed. The question is, what shall we do next? You don’t want to go to the police, I suppose?’

‘Oh, no, please.’

‘I’m glad you say that. I don’t see what good the police could do, and it would only mean unpleasantness for you. Now I suggest that you allow me to give you lunch somewhere and that I then accompany you back to your lodgings, so as to be sure you reach them safely. And then, we might have a look for the paper. Because, you know, it must be somewhere.’

‘Father may have destroyed it himself.’

‘He may, of course, but the other side evidently doesn’t think so, and that looks hopeful for us.’

‘What do you think it can be? Hidden treasure?’

‘By jove, it might be!’ exclaimed Major Wilbraham, all the boy in him rising joyfully to the suggestion. ‘But now, Miss Clegg, lunch!’

They had a pleasant meal together. Wilbraham told Freda all about his life in East Africa. He described elephant hunts, and the girl was thrilled. When they had finished, he insisted on taking her home in a taxi.

Her lodgings were near Notting Hill Gate. On arriving there, Freda had a brief conversation with her landlady. She returned to Wilbraham and took him up to the second floor, where she had a tiny bedroom and sitting-room.

‘It’s exactly as we thought,’ she said. ‘A man came on Saturday morning to see about laying a new electric cable; he told her there was a fault in the wiring in my room. He was there some time.’

‘Show me this chest of your father’s,’ said Wilbraham.

Freda showed him a brass-bound box. ‘You see,’ she said, raising the lid, ‘it’s empty.’

The soldier nodded thoughtfully. ‘And there are no papers anywhere else?’

‘I’m sure there aren’t. Mother kept everything in here.’

Wilbraham examined the inside of the chest. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation. ‘Here’s a slit in the lining.’ Carefully he inserted his hand, feeling about. A slight crackle rewarded him. ‘Something’s slipped down behind.’

In another minute he had drawn out his find. A piece of dirty paper folded several times. He smoothed it out on the table; Freda was looking over his shoulder. She uttered an exclamation of disappointment.

‘It’s just a lot of queer marks.’

‘Why, the thing’s in Swahili. Swahili, of all things!’ cried Major Wilbraham. ‘East African native dialect, you know.’

‘How extraordinary!’ said Freda. ‘Can you read it, then?’

‘Rather. But what an amazing thing.’ He took the paper to the window.

‘Is it anything?’ asked Freda tremulously. Wilbraham read the thing through twice, and then came back to the girl. ‘Well,’ he said, with a chuckle, ‘here’s your hidden treasure, all right.’

‘Hidden treasure? Not really? You mean Spanish gold – a sunken galleon – that sort of thing?’

‘Not quite so romantic as that, perhaps. But it comes to the same thing. This paper gives the hiding-place of a cache of ivory.’

‘Ivory?’ said the girl, astonished.

‘Yes. Elephants, you know. There’s a law about the number you’re allowed to shoot. Some hunter got away with breaking that law on a grand scale. They were on his trail and he cached the stuff. There’s a thundering lot of it – and this gives fairly clear directions how to find it. Look here, we’ll have to go after this, you and I.’

‘You mean there’s really a lot of money in it?’

‘Quite a nice little fortune for you.’

‘But how did that paper come to be among my father’s things?’

Wilbraham shrugged. ‘Maybe the Johnny was dying or something. He may have written the thing down in Swahili for protection and given it to your father, who possibly had befriended him in some way. Your father, not being able to read it, attached no importance to it. That’s only a guess on my part, but I dare say it’s not far wrong.’

Freda gave a sigh. ‘How frightfully exciting!’

‘The thing is – what to do with the precious document,’ said Wilbraham. ‘I don’t like leaving it here. They might come and have another look. I suppose you wouldn’t entrust it to me?’

‘Of course I would. But – mightn’t it be dangerous for you?’ she faltered.

‘I’m a tough nut,’ said Wilbraham grimly. ‘You needn’t worry about me.’ He folded up the paper and put it in his pocket-book. ‘May I come to see you tomorrow evening?’ he asked. ‘I’ll have worked out a plan by then, and I’ll look up the places on my map. What time do you get back from the city?’

‘I get back about half-past six.’

‘Capital. We’ll have a powwow and then perhaps you’ll let me take you out to dinner. We ought to celebrate. So long, then. Tomorrow at half-past six.’

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