FICTION

A Face Half-Done

Mystery and sudden death behind the footlights

BRANDON FLEMING July 1 1935
FICTION

A Face Half-Done

Mystery and sudden death behind the footlights

BRANDON FLEMING July 1 1935

A Face Half-Done

Mystery and sudden death behind the footlights

BRANDON FLEMING

ON THE NIGHT of January 10, the Mall Theatre contributed a sensation to theatrical history. Ten minutes after the opening of the third act of the play—just past its 300th performance—the curtain was suddenly rung down. The manager appeared in front of it, and informed the packed house that, owing to the serious illness of Sir John Furnival during the interval, it would be impossible to continue the performance. Almost before the audience had left the theatre the news had gone round that Furnival had been found dead in his dressing room just before he had been due on the stage. Then came the hint of murder. And after that a whisper of something vaguely, grotesquely horrible .

THE FACTS, briefly, were these:

At the end of the second act, Furnival had gone up the short flight of steps to his dressing room, which was the nearest one to the stage. There was an interval of fifteen minutes before the commencement of the last act, and Furnival himself did not appear in it for nearly another quarter of an hour. He had, therefore, about half an hour from the fall of the curtain on the second act to his entrance in the third. During that time he had not only to change his clothes but also his make-up, as there was a time lapse between the acts which necessitated a complete alteration in his appearance. Usually he had plenty of time to spare to see any callers, or to deal with letters and business if necessary. On this particular night, however, about five minutes after he had reached his room, his dresser, Bendle, had come out, wearing his hat and coat, and told the stage doorkeeper that Sir John had sent him out on an errand and w'as dressing himself. Bendle had seemed a good deal annoyed at being sent out, as it was a cold and wet night.

As it happened, there were no callers for Furnival: but a friend of his had rung up on the telephone just after the beginning of the last act. Tyler, the stage doorkeeper, had rung through to the dressing room to ask if the call should be put through, and had been surprised at the length of time it had taken Furnival to answer. When at last he did come to the phone he had seemed very angry and agitated, and refused to speak to anyone. His voice had been very loud, and there had been a strange unnatural sound about it. Tyler supposed that something had annoyed him—a by no means infrequent occurrence—and had thought no more about it.

The call-boy. Jackson, had knocked at the dressing-room door and given the usual preliminary calls. But when he gave the final personal call for Fumival, to which he had

to receive an answer, there was no response. He knocked and called again. Still there was no reply, nor could he hear any sound whatever in the room. He opened the door and looked in.

Fumival was sitting in front of his dressing table at the far end of the room, with his back to the door. The boy repeated the call, but there was no movement or answer. He went forward, alarmed, thinking that Fumival was ill. But Fumival was dead.

T_TE WAS leaning back in his chair, the mark of a heavy blow on his right temple, his wide-open eyes fixed in a dreadful stare at the mirror in front of him. But the thing that terrified Jackson even more than the actual discovery of the dead man, was that he was looking down into a strange and horrible lace; a face that bore no resemblance whatever to the Sir John Fumival he knew, either as himself or as the character he impersonated in the play; a face disfigured by such a hideous, unmeaning, inhuman make-up, in which P'umival could not possibly have gone on the stage in that play or any other, that the boy just turned and bolted out of the room, screaming for help.

The stage manager rushed round. A few minutes later the curtain was rung down. The police and a doctor were sent for. Until they came the door was locked on the dead figure, sagging back in the chair before the looking-glass, in its old grease-paint-stained dressing gown, the horrible, meaningless make-up on its face that could have been for no play ever written.

There was a growing crowd in the narrow street at the back of the theatre when Detective-Inspector Fay, and Sergeant Barker pushed their way through to the stage door. In the main passage, on to which most of the dressing rooms opened, members of the cast were standing about in excited groups. Outside P'umival’s room, Bendle, the dresser, was protesting angrily against the stage manager’s refusal to admit him until the police arrived. P'rom the open door of the only other dressing room on that level, a girl stood staring across the square landing. Inspector P'ay glanced at her only for a moment, but in that glance he saw that she was very lovely and very frightened.

“Look at his face !” said Bendle.

P'or fully a minute no other word was spoken. They stood looking down at the dead actor in the chair. He had undoubtedly been struck a savage blow on the forehead with some heavy, sharp-edged instrument. So much was plain.

“What could he have been doing?” the stage manager whispered. “He must have intended to go on in the last act.

He hadn’t missed a single performance since the play started. And yet, just before he was killed he must have been sitting there playing the fool with his make-up like that, within a few minutes of being called on the stage. Unless”—he paused a moment—“it seems too monstrous to suggest— unless the murderer, after killing him, took the risk of staying in the room—to make a mockery of his dead face.” Inspector Fay turned away and looked round the room. It was large and luxuriously furnished. His eyes found the telephone instrument on a bracket behind a couch at the other end. He walked over to it. This was the instrument from which Tyler had heard Furnival’s voice loud and angry, with the strange unnatural quality he had spoken of. He was positive it had been Furnival’s voice and no other. There seemed to lx no doubt whatever about that. Inspector Fay walked back from the telephone lar more slowly than he had walked to it. On the way back he took a great deal of interest in the floor. Twice he stooped down . . .

nPYLER WAS certain that no stranger had entered or left the stage door during the evening. He was prepared to swear to that. The stage manager was equally sure that no one had passed through the pass-door from the stage to the front of the house.

Inspector Fay accepted both statements without question.

“Now, Mr. Bendle, just one or two points. I think you said when we first came in that you had been acting as Sir John’s valet and dresser for a good many years. Fifteen, wasn’t it?”

"Nearer sixteen.”

“Nearer sixteen. That’s pretty good. So. of course, you knew him very well. When he came up here after the end of the second act, did he seem to be quite himself?”

A quick glance passed between the dresser and the stage manager.

“Much as usual ” said Bendle. “There’d been a bit of something earlier on. Mr. Grafton’ll tell you about that.”

“There was rather an unpleasant incident at the end of the first act,” the stage manager explained, “between Sir John and Miss Margaret Archer. Miss Archer plays the leading woman’s part—”

The inspector stopped him.

■‘Was i: ? Ii.-s r her who was standing at the door of the room opposite v.ixn v.c came in?”

“Yes. I’m sure it was not really anything serious—” “We’ll come to it in a minute,” said the inspector. “Was it usual, Mr. Bendle, for Sir John to send you out on errands between the acts and dress himself?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“What was the errand he sent you out on tonight?”

I lostility crept into Bendle’s attitude. I lis eyes narrowed. “To deliver a letter.”

“Whom was it addressed to, and where did you take it?” “It was a private errand,” returned Bendle surlily.

“Very likely,” said Inspector Fay. “Whom was it addressed to, and where did you take it?”

The dresser stared at him defiantly.

“I’m not going to tell. It was the guv’nor’s private business.”

“Come, Bendle,” said the inspector, “you know better than that. Nothing is private in an affair like this. We’ve

got to know things. You’ll have to answer sooner or later. S'ou’d better save trouble by doing it now.”

“I should tell the inspector, Bendle,” advised the stage manager. “He has the right to ask questions. You’ll only make things more difficult by refusing. It’s quite plain you can’t have had any hand in the trouble.”

“I was out on the guv’nor’s business.” repeated Bendle obstinately. “And that’s all I’ve got to say.”

The inspector looked at him steadily.

“I wonder if you’d have any objection, Bendle,” he said quietly, “to turning out your pockets?”

The man drew back quickly. For an instant fear flashed across his face. His hands clenched tightly.

“I won’t do it,” he said hoarsely. “You can’t make me. You’ve nothing to touch me on. I’m not going to be treated like that by you or anyone else.”

Inspector Fay shrugged his shoulders.

“All right, Bendle. Don’t be upset. It was just a suggestion.” He turned to the sergeant, who was standing behind him. "Barker,” he said pleasantly, “pop out into another room with Mr. Bendle and keep him company for a tew minutes. Perhaps he might be able to give you a hint or two about that queer make-up. It’s the most important thing in the case.”

For a moment the dresser’s face was livid.

“What d’you mean?” he demanded truculently. “I wasn’t here. How could I know anything about it?”

“That’s what I’m wondering,” said Inspector Fay.

Then Tyler brought in the divisional surgeon.

' I 'HERE WAS no doubt that Furnival had been detested by everybody in the theatre. No one had a good word for him, from the top to the bottom. He was selfish, arrogant, an overbearing egotist, without the slightest consideration for anyone but himself. But he was a great artist, a man of tremendous personality. Whatever he might have been in other ways, there could be no question that he was one of the finest actors of all time. And that night, curiously enough, he had been treating the crowded audience to the greatest performance he had ever given of one of the most diffi ;uk and successful parts of his career. I Ie had held them spellbound. And yet, unknown to the hundreds who had

applauded him, strange things had happened behind the dividing curtain.

Inspector Fay left the doctor to his examination, and crossed the landing to the open door of Margaret Archer’s room. He found a young man with her, a tall, good-looking fellow of about twenty-eight or so. Both were still in their stage clothes.

Margaret Archer looked at the inspector gravely. She had recovered herself, and there was hardly anything remaining of the fear that had been in her face when he had seen her first.

“I expected you’d want to see me,” she said, “so I didn’t begin to change.” She turned to the young man. “This is Mr. Jack Vane.” There was just the slightest hesitation. “We are engaged to be married.”

“Miss Archer,” said Inspector Fay, “I understand that when you came off the stage with Sir John Furnival at the end of the first act tonight, you struck him in the face in the presence of a good many of the cast?”

“Yes,” she said, “I did. Some time ago he started making insulting whispers to me during the play. I warned him what I would do if he didn’t stop. And tonight ... I had

The inspector nodded.

“I am sure you acted under great provocation. Mr. Vane, I think, was not present when the incident took place?” “I was not,” said the young man. “If I had been—” She stopped him.

“Jack—please don’t.”

Vane put his arm round her.

“It’s no use trying to hide anything, sweetheart.” he said firmly. “So far as I’m concerned I’m going to be quite frank. For some months, inspector, Furnival had been making himself objectionable to Miss Archer. She showed as plainly as she could that she didn’t want to have anything to do with him, but he went on pestering her. I interfered several times.”

“So I’ve heard, Mr. Vane,” the inspector said. “I heard also that you had uttered threats.”

“I may have, and they were quite justified. She was beginning to find it unbearable. He was making her almost afraid to go on the stage.”

The girl’s hands, in the meantime, closed tightly on his.

“I suppose I was nervy tonight,” she confessed. “This play always frightens me a little. It used to even when we were rehearsing. I couldn’t do my part properly if it didn’t. Every scene I played with him— I used to feel it was real, terrifyingly real.”

“You ought not to be playing in it,” Vane told her. “It’s the wrong sort of show for you. Your nerves aren’t strong enough, especially when you had to play such scenes with a man like Furnival.”

She drew away from him, pausing a moment.

“Of course, it’s stupid to let a thing get hold of one—but he frightened me. Every time he spoke to me or looked at me on the stage, I felt I couldn’t get away. I was helpless. I just said my lines mechanically. He was supposed to halfhypnotize me in the play, and I believe he did.” Another convulsive shudder ran through her. She made a strong effort to keep her voice under control. “Tonight I had to do something to resist him. I made myself do it. I knew that if I didn’t—he’d break me.”

“You can see how it was, inspector,” Vane said. “Furnival would have had me sacked from the cast long ago, only Miss Archer declared positively that she would leave if I did, and they couldn’t afford to lose her. There’s no one could play the part as she does.”

TNSPECTOR FAY smiled.

"I m sure of that. When did you hear of this ‘incident,’ at the end of the first act. Mr. Vane?”

“Not until the second act had begun. If I’d heard about it before. I should have gone down to Fumival’s room straight away.”

The next question came slowly and deliberately.

“Instead of which, you waited until the end of the second act?”

The terror came back into Margaret Archer’s face. She clung to him.

"Jack, for heaven’s sake—”

He kissed her. “Don’t you worry, darling. I’m going to tell exactly what happened. It’s the only thing to do.” “Goon.” said Inspector Fay.

“I have a fairly quick change myself for the third act, so I got that done first. Then I went to Fumival’s room. I was so angry I didn’t knock at the door. I just walked right in.”

“Was Bendle, the dresser, there?”

"No. Furnival was alone.”

“\\ hat was he doing when you went in?”

“Sitting in front of his dressing table.”

“Making himself up?”

“Go on,” said the inspector again.

"He turned on me and asked what the devil I meant by coming into his room. I told him I’d heard what had happened, that Miss Archer was engaged to me, and if he ever annoyed her again in any way I’d give him a hiding.” “How did he take the news of Miss Archer’s engagement?” “He was furious. 1 repeated my warning and went down to the stage for my cue.”

Inspector Fay paused. The young man had given his account in a perfectly frank, straightforward way.

“Did anyone see you go into the room, or come out?” Vane shook his head. “There was no one about. The third act had begun, and practically everybody was on the stage.”

“So it’s not possible to know definitely whether you were in the room before or after Tyler rang through and heard Sir John’s voice on the phone?”

“I’m afraid not. All I can say is that no phone call came through while I was there.”

The inspector looked at him closely.

“You see the value of the point, Mr. Vane?”

“Of course I do,” Vane retorted. “If I could prove that Tyler had heard Furnival’s voice on the phone after I had gone out of the room, it would show that he was alive when I left him and clear me from suspicion.”

“Exactly. Can you prove it?”

“No, I can’t,” said Vane decidedly. “All I can do is to give you my word that I don’t know a thing about Fumival’s death. I never laid a finger on him. and he was alive when I went out. I’ve no proof. I can only tell you it was so. Whether you believe me or not is your affair.”

NOW. MR. VANE,” said Inspector Fay, “about that very strange make-up.”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“You said that when you went into the room, Sir John was sitting in front of his table making himself up for the third act?”

“How far had he got?”

Vane considered a moment.

“I should say his face was about half done.”

“As much as that?”

“Yes, quite.”

“Did he go on making himself up while you were there?” "No. He was much too angry.”

‘‘Was there anything queer or unusual about his make-up, so far as he had gone at that time?” ‘‘Nothing,’’ Vane declared. “It was quite all right.”

“You’re sure of that?” the inspector insisted. “Perfectly.”

“Have you been in the room at any time since he was found dead?”

“Yes. We all crowded in after the alarm was given.” “You saw his face again then?”

“I did. It was horrible.”

“Can you make any suggestion,” continued the inspector, “as to how or why, after you had left the room, that halffinished normal make-up should have become changed to what you saw the second time?”

"I can’t think of any reason,” Vane replied. “It seems an incredible thing for him to have done himself, or for anyone else to have done to him when he was dead. If I had killed him I certainly shouldn’t have stayed in the room to play about with his make-up when he was liable to be called at any moment.”

"You don’t think,” the inspector suggested, “that the announcement of Miss Archer’s engagement to you could

suddenly have had the effect of sending him off his head?” “I am absolutely certain it couldn’t. He wasn’t that sort. He would have been more likely to have made up his mind to get her away from me by hook or crook. I don’t like talking about him like that after he’s dead, but it can’t be helped. I can't believe he did that to his own face. I am sure that while he was alive he intended to go on in the third act. He was very conscientious in that way. He would not have let the play down for any private reasons whatsoever. I'm convinced of that.”

Margaret Archer went to Inspector Fay and put a hand on his arm,

"I want to tell you something,” she said slowly. “I’ve been told I’m psychic. I don’t know. I’ve never tried to test it. But when I went into the room with the others I was conscious of something that I'm sure no one else felt. It’s very hard to describe. It came to me so strongly. I felt 1 was on the scene of a great fight. I don’t mean a physical fight . And when I looked at his face—somehow it didn’t appear hideous to me. I seemed to see something beyond—something rather wonderful—like the face of a man who’d died in a great cause ...”

Her voice trembled. She broke off.

“Please don’t laugh at me,” she said. “I suppose it sounds silly.”

' I 'HERE WAS no sign of laughter on the inspector’s face.

“Miss Archer, it isn’t at all silly. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. You’ve got nearer to the truth—’’ There was the sound of a sudden commotion—a man’s voice shouting. Inspector Fay hurried out on to the landing. On the stairs Bendle was struggling to fret* himself from the expert grip of Sergeant Barker. Tyler was behind them. The sergeant brought matters to a climax by lifting Bendle bodily up the last half-dozen steps and depositing him at the top.

“Tried to force his way out of the room, sir. Said he wouldn’t wait any longer. Stand still, will you?”

“Don’t be a fool, Bendle,” said the inspector curtly. "You are only making things worse—”

He stopped, and turned quickly. The stage manager came out of the room opposite. He had a folded slip of paper in his hand.

“Inspector, the doctor asked me to give you this.” Inspector Fay unfolded the note, and read it. He looked back with a slight smile at Vane and Margaret standing together in the doorway behind him.

“What’s that?” asked Vane sharply.

The inspector refolded the note and put it into his pocket. “Your vindication, Mr. Vane. But I may say you were not really under suspicion at any time. The doctor has just sent me the answer to a question I asked him.” He turned back to the others. "Now then, Bendle. 1 asked you a little time ago to turn out your pockets. You refused. Do you still refuse?”

Bendle wrenched one arm free from the sergeant’s grasp. “Yes, I do.”

“Then I’m going to do it myself.”

“You’ve no right to.”

“We’ll discuss that afterward.” said the inspector serenely. “If I’m wrong, you can have me hauled over the coals. But I’m going to see what you’ve got in your pockets.” “It’s illegal,” stormed Bendle.

“Perhaps so. You’ve still the chance to do it for me. Which is it to be?”

For a moment the dresser stood glaring at him helplessly. Then he put his hand to an inner pocket, brought out a small sealed packet, and threw it across to him.

“That’s what you want ! Take it !”

The inspector caught it.

“Thanks, Bendle. You might as well have done it at first. I’m not going to ask you where you got it yet. That will have to be dealt with later, and I should advise you to be frank about it.” He put the packet away into his own pocket. “Now I think I can tell you what happened in Sir John’s room tonight.

rT'HERE ARE two people here,” said Inspector Fay. “who are in a way responsible for Sir John Fumival’s death. One is Tyler.”

The stage-door keeper started.

“Me? What do you mean? 1 never went near him. I was at the door the whole time.”

“I know that.” agreed the inspector, “and I can assure you it won’t trouble your conscience. The other one is Bendle—and I’m not going to say anything about his conscience at the moment.”

The dresser was silent. His face had changed to a sickly paleness. He stared down at the floor. The inspector turned his back on him.

“Sir John was a brave man. He died because he was brave. If he had been a man of less strength of will and determination he would have been alive now. Whatever his faults, we must allow him that. But one of his faults was that he was a drug addict.

“For many years I was attached to the special branch for dealing with the drug traffic, and I had to study the effects of the different drugs, and how to detect their use. Sir John’s

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eyes caused me to ask the doctor a question, which he has been able to anstyer after making a test. The dead man had been in the habit of taking a certain drug—I am not going to mention its name; that will be a matter lor medical evidence at the inquest.

I do not know whether Bendle’s part was merely to act as a messenger, or whether he had any larger share in procuring the drug— that also will have to be the subject of investigation. The important thing is that this particular drug produces two separate effects. One is on the heart, and is very dangerous because it can remain unsuspected until some sudden shock discovers it. The other is that, taken in increasing doses over a long period, it has the property of inducing attacks of blindness.”

There were startled exclamations all round him.

“Blindness!” Vane exclaimed. “By Jove, yes; that accounts for it !”

“As I see it,” said Inspector Fay, “what happened was this: Sir John came up to his room after the first act very much upset by

the incident with Miss Archer. In order to comisóse himself for the next act he took a large dose of the drug, which happened to be all he had left. Is that right, Bendle?”

THE DRESSER nodded sullenly.

“During the next interval he sent Bendle out to the place from which he obtained the drug for a further supply, and sat down in front of his glass to make himself up for the third act. Then in came Mr. Vane, and the effect of the interview was to leave Sir John beside himself with rage. This sudden acute mental disturbance, on the top of the large dose of the drug he had taken, brought on the first attack. He was struck blind.”

The inspector paused. Margaret Archer swayed a little, and put a hand on the back

of a chair to steady herself. There were tears in her eyes.

“It must have been a dreadful shock to him,” the inspector went on, “but, as I said, he was a brave man. He made up his mind to finish the performance without letting anyone know. He had played the part three hundred times. He knew every inch of the way from that room to the stage, and no doubt could have visualized the scenes quite well enough to have carried on without betraying himself. The great difficulty, the worst risk he had to take was with his make-up. It was only half done. He had to finish it. If he could fix in his mind’s eye the positions of the different sticks of grease paint and other things on the table in front of him as they were when his sight was cut off, he could do it. He took the risk—but, as

you know, from what we found, he failed.

“While he was doing this, Tyler rang through on the phone. He was surprised that Sir John took so long in answering, but the reasons are obvious. He did not want to get up from the table and break up his mental picture of it until he had finished: but he could not ignore the call, particularly if it was an important one, without bringing about enquiry. Then he had to grope his way to the telephone instrument. No wonder his voice sounded strange and unnatural.”

The door of the room opposite opened again, and the doctor came out. He beckoned to Inspector Fay.

“You were quite right. He must have tripped up over the edge of the rug on Ijis way back from the telephone, and caught his forehead on the projecting foot of the table. The grease paint you found on it proves that. He just managed to stagger up and get to his chair, but his heart was so bad with that infernal stuff that it gave out under the double shock.”