The Headmaster (short story)

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(CC) Photo: Jerry Bauer
Michael Gilbert on the back cover of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens, 1982

The Headmaster is a short story by the British mystery and thriller writer Michael Gilbert about the counterspies Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens. First published in the United Kingdom in the June, 1962, issue of Argosy, it was later published in the United States in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and then collected in book form along with other stories about the same two protagonists as the sixth of eleven stories in Game without Rules. It is set in a contemporary, but undated London, and, unlike most of the other stories in this series, has Mr. Calder as the main character, with only brief appearances by Mr. Behrens and Rasselas, the Persian deerhound. It is written in Gilbert's usual spare style, but with even fewer overtones and descriptions of the characters than are found in most of his works; the plot itself, and its resolution, is also somewhat unlikely, so the story, compared to the others in the series, must be considered a fairly minor one. It does, however, have several examples of Gilbert's understated and astringent humor.

It begins with the stark statement that there now remained only two master spies at work in the country: "The Science Master was still at his shadowy work in the Midlands, and the Headmaster was in the London area." Mr. Calder, vague and ill-defined, is instructed by Mr. Fortescue, the director of JSSIC(E),the shadowy counter-espionage agency for which he has worked since 1958, to locate a missing fellow-agent and longtime friend of Calder's, a prominent London barrister named John Craven. Unlike the other Calder-Behrens stories, Mr. Fortesque is not shown within his usual abominably paneled office at the Westminster branch of the London and Home Counties Bank, of which he is the manager, nor are Fortesque, Calder, or Behrens fleshed out to the reader with any of the telling details that Gilbert generally provides.

Calder, a mute and nearly invisible Behrens, and Craven's sister rendezvous in the English countryside, along with Rasselas the deerhound, and begin the search for the missing solicitor. Gilbert's writing is often at its evocative best when dealing with the giant dog and "The Headmaster" is no exception.

Rasselas ran free ahead of them, his tail feathering in the breeze. Occasionally his nose dipped to the ground and rose again as he ran. He was like a great golden galleon answering the first chops of the open sea.

At the end of a long day, the body of John Craven is found hidden behind a remote farmhouse and Calder later details to Fortesque, somewhat improbably, precisely how three men ambushed and killed Craven in a carefully designed trap.

"How do you know all this?"

"Rasselas worked it out for me," said Mr. Calder.

Fortesque and Calder decide that Craven must have inadvertently and unknowingly come across a link that could have led him to the Headmaster, hence his execution. With no other leads to follow, Calder installs himself in Craven's legal chambers "overlooking the lawn of Middle Temple Gardens". Here he spends the next two weeks going through all of Craven's papers, appointments, and cases, trying to find anything that might point him in the direction of the Headmaster. Eventually he narrows his trail down to three men. According to Craven's head clerk, "Any one of them could have access to secret information. And all three are new acquaintances."

Of the three, Sir George Gould is "something in the Treasury, I believe." General Hamish Fairside works in the War Office in Military Intelligence. And of Freddie Lake:

"The name is familiar, but I don't think I ever met him."

"You're lucky," said Mr. Calder. "I have."

In the course of a long career, Sir Frederick Lake had held every conceivable post in the Foreign Service, had visited every known country in the world and had developed into the most compulsive bore of his generation.

What particularly piques Calder's interest is the discovery that all three of the men are members of the Hambone Club,

the offspring of that eccentric aristocrat, Sir Rawnsley Clayton. Having been turned out of the Athenǣum for giving dinner there to a troupe of clowns, he had founded it as a place where he could meet his more Bohemian acquaintances. It was still much used by actors and writers, but had acquired a solid addition of politicians who found the Carlton too stuffy and of soldiers who found the Senior too exclusive.

Three weeks later, having skillfully inveighled General Fairside into inviting him for dinner at the Hambone, Calder slips "into the special pocket of his coat an automatic pistol. It had—like its owner—a short, stout body," the only characteristic of Calder mentioned in the story. During the course of "an excellent dinner" Calder and Barlow, "the doyen of Hambone staff", agree on the excellence of the Corton from Burgundy that both men have had with their dinners. After dinner, Fairside and Calder settle themselves into the "large leather armchairs which make the coffee room of the Hambone one of the best sitting-out places in London, where they are eventually joined by the two other men who have attracted Calder's interest, Sir George Gould and Sir Frederick Lake.

All three men, in contrast to Calder, are skillfully sketched by Gilbert. Sir George, for instance,

he reflected, would be a very difficult man to fool. His had been a lifetime of committees and desk work, a lifetime of watching the wheels go round, and occasionally making them turn.... Another brandy, thought Mr. Calder, and he might become thunderingly indiscreet. Or would he? There was an inner wall of cold reserve in those gray eyes....

The four men order drinks from Barlow and chat until two in the morning, although Calder has, through apparently inconsequential dialog, had a sudden epiphany.

In truth, he had only one idea now—to get the three men out of the club. Patience, patience and still more patience. Mr. Calder, who had played many waiting games in his life, had rarely been tried higher than he was that night. But all things must have an end, even Sir Frederick Lake's anecdotes.

The evening finally comes to an end and the four men leave the deserted club to make their way home with "the slamming of car doors." Calder, however, returns through the thick mist to the club and its unlocked front door. As he tiptoes through the inner hall he reflects that he is part of "a melodrama... In three acts. Act one, a deserted farmstead. Act two, a barrister's chambers. Act three, a London club."

A few minutes later, Calder says, aloud to the Headmaster, "It is interesting to reflect... that had Sir Frederick Lake indulged in one more reminiscence, you would have got away with all this."

The abrupt conclusion of the story, however, along with its brief explanation as to how Calder had determined the Headmaster's identity, seems somewhat contrived and in the nature of a deus ex machina being suddenly pulled from the author's hatful of tricks. Whether it is a satisfactory ending is up to the individual reader to judge.