Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Two

Case for Three Detectives

I have said that nothing sinister happened during the earlier part of that evening, and it is true.  But there was one small incident which I thought, even at the time, was odd.  It was not in the least sinister, and might even, at another time, have been thought rather comic.
I dress very quickly.  I have never been able to afford a man-servant capable of looking after my clothes, and consequently am accustomed to doing everything myself.  I must have been the first to finish changing, and left my room to go downstairs within fifteen minutes of the time when the first gong had been rung.
The house, I have explained, was Georgian, and so simple in plan that one could take it all in at a glance.  There were three storeys, and on each floor the corridor ran from end to end of the house, with doors to right and left of it.  My own was at the east end of the corridor, and Mary Thurston’s at the west end, while young Strickland, I knew, had the bedroom next to hers.  Her husband’s room was opposite to hers.
I had reached the top of the stairs, and was about to descend, when I noticed that the door of Mary Thurston’s room was being opened.  Thinking that she, too, had by some means effected a quick change, I waited for her.  But it was Strickland who began cautiously to emerge.  When he saw me standing there he made a clumsy effort to return to the room, but, realizing that I had seen him, he seemed to think better of it, and walked out as boldly as possible.  He even gave me a brief nod as he entered his own room.  I went on downstairs wishing that I had not paused, since it might have appeared that I was spying.  It was embarrassing, too, to have seen that.  And I found myself wondering what might be the relationship between these two, the ageing, stout, motherly woman, and the thick-set, hard-drinking young gambler.  Whatever it might be, it was not a love-affair, of that I was certain.
Downstairs I found the Vicar, who, I gathered, had been invited to dinner.  I was a little dismayed to find him sitting beside the fire in the lounge, for I realized that I should be alone for some little time with him.  He sat bolt upright on a straight-backed chair, his hands on his bony knees, and his eyes—after he had greeted me—blinking solemnly at the fire.
I had met Mr. Rider before, of course, and never without embarrassment.  This little, wiry, staring man was quite out of place in the Thurstons’ cheerful house—in more senses than one a skeleton at the feast.  His very appearance made him inappropriate.  He was bald, and his cheeks were yellow, and his collars too large for his thin neck.  His clothes were always untidy, and sometimes rather soiled, for he was a bachelor and depended on a village woman for service in his draughty Vicarage.  But it was his stare which used to make me uncomfortable.  He had a trick of fixing his eyes on one, then apparently forgetting himself, so that for perhaps five or even ten minutes, one remained under scrutiny.  He had dark, round, surprised eyes, in deep sockets.
His reputation was unusual, too.  His puritanism was ferocious.  Towards those of his parishioners whose way of living was supposed to be lax, his attitude was merciless.  A number of stories were current in the district of his uncompromising warfare against what he called ‘sins of the flesh’.  It was said of him that once, meeting a pair of rustic lovers walking in the fields on a Sunday afternoon, he had lectured them so severely that they had actually untwined themselves (a feat which would not have seemed easy to anyone who had observed the complications of circling arm, yielding waist, knotted fingers, and clutched shoulder), and hurried home, guiltily isolated.  He had preached violently at an unfortunate farmer’s wife who had come to one of his services with a dress cut a trifle lower at the neck than was customary, and his manner when he was obliged to conduct marriage services was supposed to be unwilling and curt.
At the Thurstons’ he usually spoke very little, unless he was roused, and I gathered that he was invited out of kindness, for neither the Doctor nor May Thurston believed that he had enough to eat at the Vicarage.
I made one or two attempts to converse with him but was answered only by absent monosyllables.  Suddenly, however, he turned to me.
“Mr. Townsend,” he said, “I want to ask you a question.”  The tone in which he said this was strange.  His voice was hollow, almost fierce.  There was no apology in it.  It was as though he were going to give me a chance to defend myself against some serious imputation.  Then he seemed to grow distant again.  He stared into the fire.
“You may,” he said at last without looking at me, “you may be able to put my mind at rest.  I hope you can.”  I waited.  Then abruptly he turned to me again.  “Have you noticed anything in this household?  Anything going on which should not go on?  Anything . . . improper?”
I thought of David Strickland, secretively coming out of Mary Thurston’s room.  But I smiled, and said cheerfully, “Good Lord, no, Mr. Rider.  I’ve always considered it a model household.”
He was so quaint and eccentric that I forgot to blame him for the indiscretion of his query.  You could blame him no more than you would blame a child for discussing his hosts’ concerns.  But I was greatly relieved when just then the door opened, and Sam Williams came in, so that the talk became more natural.
Dinner, I remember, was a cheerful, almost an hilarious meal.  We all ate with real enjoyment and Thurston was excited about some hock he had bought at an auction sale of a neighbouring estate.  Stall handled it with reverent efficiency and it was certainly excellent.
It was irritating, though, when Mary Thurston had left us, to have the Vicar sitting morosely at the table, primly refusing the port, and making it impossible to talk more freely than we had done in the presence of our hostess.  Not that the conversation after dinner at the Thurstons’ was ever particularly crude—it was not.  But young Strickland could tell stories nimbly, in spite of his rather weighty character, and perhaps it was just because Mr. Rider was there that I for one was peeved by the silence forced on him.  I was relieved when someone suggested bridge, though neither Thurston nor I were particularly fond of cards.
Several of us were tired that evening.  I was not at all surprised when quite early young Strickland got up and apologetically proposed to go to bed.  He had got up very early that day, he said, and felt fagged out.
“Whisky and soda before you go?” suggested Thurston from the card-table.
But Strickland unexpectedly refused.  “No, thanks awfully,” he said, “I really think I'll turn in right away.”  And he nodded to us, and left the room.
I did not notice the time then, but I have since calculated from later events that it was about half-past ten.
The next to get up was Alec Norris.  He had threatened to break up the game at the end of the next rubber.  He had been playing with Thurston, Williams and me, while the Vicar and Mary Thurston had been talking with some intentness where they sat together on the settee.
“You would like to join the game, Mrs. Thurston,” the Vicar said, “and it is quite time I started to walk home.”
“It’s not very far, Rider,” Thurston remarked politely, though I don’t think anyone was sorry.
“No.  I shall go through the orchard.  Be home in five minutes.”  And protesting his gratitude for a pleasant evening, he took himself off.
We did play one more rubber, but it was not very successful, for Mary Thurston was a poor player, and Sam Williams, who was her partner, was inclined to take his bridge seriously.  And we finished it just as the clock in the hall struck eleven.
“No,” Mary Thurston said, “no more, really.  I’m making poor Mr. Williams miserable.  Besides, eleven o’clock is my bedtime.”
That was quite true.  Like a little child, Mary Thurston had her fixed hour for retiring, and if she stayed up beyond it, did so always with a sense of guilt.  I could remember her often enough in the past standing up when she had heard that chime, kissing her husband, and bidding us good night with an ingenuous, even rather babyish smile.
She left the three of us, Williams, Thurston and me, to pour ourselves out a very welcome whisky.
Looking back on that night I remember with gratitude that from then until the . . . until the tragedy, I remained with the other two.  None of us stirred from the room.  Our staying there talking saved us, as you will see, from a great deal of interrogation and unpleasantness.  Once I remembered a letter which I had left in my overcoat pocket, and thought for a moment of fetching it.  I actually crossed the room and opened the door, but fortunately at that moment Williams asked me some question which it interested me to answer, and I went no farther.  I have cause enough to be glad of it.
Before leaving us, Mary Thurston had turned on the wireless, and though none of us was exhilarated by the efforts of a popular dance band to provide entertainment for Great Britain, we did not actually turn it off.  It made an uninteresting undertone to our conversation.  Since I was on my feet, however, I thought of switching it off, and should have done so before sitting down.  But I paused to answer Williams’s question, and it was during that pause that we heard the first scream.
So much of the subsequent enquiry depended on time, that I should like to have been able to fix this precisely, but I can do no more than say that it must have been at about a quarter past eleven.  I had closed the door again, and was returning to the other two by the fireside. 
Now you must know I have no wish to chill your blood or emphasise the gruesome aspects of this affair.  But I do ask you to imagine the effect of that interruption.  We were in the cosy firelight of an autumn evening, quietly sipping our whisky, in a cheerful friendly house.  We knew each other and the household well.  There had been nothing to arouse even the faintest presentment of evil or misfortune.  We were normal English people in a very ordinary house.  And suddenly, from just over our heads it seemed, came that long, horrifying woman’s cry of terror.  It was the shock of it which seemed to stun me.  Not the actual sound or its implications, but the sudden shock.
Almost before we had jumped to our feet there was another, and a third followed it, but the third was the most hideous of all, for it died slowly out of our hearing.  By that time we had made for the staircase.  Thurston was first.  “Mary!” he shouted, and in spite of his weight he bounded upstairs like a frightened boy.