Case without a Corpse
I went down the High Street next day to buy some razor-blades, and was turning towards my hotel when I saw Molly Cutler coming towards me, alone. I was not forgetful of my responsibilities as chronicler to Sergeant Beef. There were evident precedents for me. Gentlemen in my rôle in the novels of detection I had so avidly read, had frequently been rewarded by becoming engaged to some lady involved, but not too intimately involved, in one of the master’s cases. There was, of course, Dr. Watson, who achieved a marriage of legendary happiness in this way, and there was the conscientiously short-sighted Captain Hastings. So, anxious to do my best for Beef, I raised my hat.
Molly Cutler stopped and smiled, vaguely at first, but then with recognition. “Oh yes,” she said, “you were with Sergeant Beef that day.” Her voice was tired and toneless, but she looked no less attractive than she had done on that first night when she had rushed in from the rain, and thrown herself beside her lover’s body.
“Have they discovered anything yet?” she asked.
“Yes. Quite a lot. I wonder . . . would you care to come in for a coffee?” And I indicated a confectioner’s shop with a tea-room attached to it.
This drinking of coffee at eleven o’clock in the morning is a good English provincial habit. It is odd that whereas on the Continent the men spend their time in cafes and the women remain at home, in England it is the women who haunt these places while the men work. As I conducted Molly Cutler to a rather isolated table, we passed groups of local ladies busily sipping the creamy, hot, but very inferior coffee supplied in such places, or talking emphatically between their sips.
There were glances at my companion, and surreptitious efforts to attract attention to her. Women whose backs were turned twisted their faces to see “the girl in the case.” There could be little doubt that her name had been on their lips before we entered.
“Thanks,” said Molly as I held her chair. Then, turning to me, she asked at once what they had found out. She had been a witness at the inquest, of course, so that the only news I could give her was of discoveries which had not been made public. I told her of the piece of Rogers’s letter, but hesitated when I came to the report from Buenos Aires.
“You know, Miss Cutler,” I said, “I think you’re wrong in worrying over Rogers. It’s hard to tell you, but. . . .”
“Well?” She had turned swiftly and defiantly to me.
“As a matter of fact information has come through to Detective-Inspector Stute which shows . . . well, quite apart from this affair, he really was no good.”
“Information? What information?” She sounded quite hostile now, and I wished that I hadn’t put myself in this position.
“He’s had a report from Buenos Aires. . . .”
Molly Cutler gave a rather bitter little laugh. “Oh, that,” she said, “I know about that.”
This was startling. “You knew. . . .”
“You mean about his having been in prison out there? And deported? And how he changed his name? He told me all about it. It was through a fight he got into with a Belgian. Alan was a terribly impulsive fellow. I’m afraid he was often in scrapes of that kind. But they meant nothing. This fellow insulted him, and he hit him harder than he meant to. Alan was arrested, and there you are.”
She shrugged and looked down at her hands which were folded on the table.
“Yes. They told Stute about that in their report. But it wasn’t that I meant when I said he was no good.”
“Then what did you mean?”
I thought there was a touch of something between impatience and contempt in her voice.
“You won’t be angry with me if I tell you?”
“With you? No. Why should I be?”
I’m sorry to say that this sounded rather as though she did not think me worth her anger. But I went on.
“Well, the Buenos Aires police were going to arrest Rogers when he landed there again. He had been drug-smuggling.”
For a moment Molly stared straight at me. Then she flushed a little.
“That’s nonsense, of course,” she said briefly.
“I shook my head. “For your sake, I wish it were. It seems to mean so much to you that this fellow’s name shall be whitened. But there’s every proof. Stute even has confirmation from a fellow steward of Rogers’s, on his ship. There can’t be much doubt of it.”
She did not speak, and when she looked up again I saw that her eyes had tears in them which threatened to fall.
“What else are you people going to accuse him of?” she said at last, in a low intense voice. “Murder—and now drug-smuggling. You haven’t the least idea what he was like.”
“What was he like?” I asked, largely to keep her talking and save her, and me, from the embarrassment of a scene in this place.
“Alan had lots of faults,” she said, “a violent temper was one of them. He drank too much, sometimes, and I suppose he had left a few debts behind him in different places. But there was nothing wicked in him.”
“You can’t conceive of his having smuggled cocaine into the country?”
“No. I can’t. He would never have done it. It wasn’t the kind of thing he did.”
“So that—if he was doing it, you think he didn’t know what he carried. Is that it?”
She looked a little less forbidding. “Yes! That must have been it. If he was doing it.”
“And now tell me something else, Miss Cutler. Can you, honestly, conceive of young Rogers murdering anyone?”
She did not speak for a second. Then she looked up sharply.
“Are you trying to catch me?” she said.
“Catch you? Of course not. I . . . well to tell you the truth, I was almost beginning to think of this man as you paint him. And I wanted to know. . . .”
“Well, then—I can conceive of Alan murdering someone. He was a violent sort of chap. But I don’t believe he ever did it in a premeditated way. I don’t believe he ever schemed to do it. If someone attacked him, or provoked him, he was capable of anything. But there was no subtlety in his nature.”
“I think I believe you there,” I said. “I believe that when we get at the truth you will turn out to have been right over that. But if that was so”—my inexpert mind had sudden misgivings—“why should he have committed suicide? He had everything to lose. He was engaged to you, and he had a good job. Surely if it was during a violent scene of some sort there would have been a chance for him to get off with manslaughter. How can you account for his having taken poison?”
“He had terrible fits of remorse over nearly everything crazy that he did. This must have been worse, that’s all.”
Somehow, in my mind, I was trying to make her conception of young Rogers conform with the facts that Stute and Beef possessed. Unconsciously, I suppose, I was trying to make her feel happier about it all. And suddenly I had an idea.
“Suppose,” I said, “that he was made to believe he had committed murder. Suppose that some interested party had been able to convince him that he had been guilty of an act which in reality had been the work of another. That would account for it, wouldn’t it?”
She stared at me blankly for a moment.
“My God!” she said at last, and I saw that she had turned pale, “that must have been it! What a wicked thing to do. Could anyone do that? Make him think he was guilty?”
“There are some people who have no scruples,” I returned, rather tritely perhaps.
“How awful! So Alan poisoned himself because he thought he had committed a crime which someone else. . . . Oh, it’s the most terrible thing!”
“But Miss Cutler, it was only an idea of mine. It may not have any truth in it.”
“It has! It is true! I see it now! Oh, if only we had met that evening. And how do you suppose they did it—convinced him, I mean?”
“I don’t know. I only mentioned it as a possibility. I am not a detective, and if I were I probably should never have considered that. Because, after all, there was the knife—his knife. How are you going to account for that? It had a bloodstain on it. So had his shirt-cuff and sleeve. Even if he didn’t actually kill the person, he must have. . . .”
“Oh, don’t . . .” she begged.
“I’m awfully sorry. Perhaps I should never have suggested the idea. That’s the worst of anyone like me plunging about in a case of this sort.”
I could see that her lip was trembling. Poor girl, these days must have been hideous for her. The thing itself, the inquest, the people in the town.
“Miss Cutler,” I said, trying to speak considerately, “why don’t you go away for a bit while they’re clearing this thing up. It can’t do you any good to be here. You’re making yourself more wretched than you need.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “I want to stay and see it all settled. I want to know the truth. It’s not much I can do for him now, but I can do that. And I will.”
“I think you are very brave—and loyal,” I said quietly.
To my surprise and pleasure she was pleased at that. She even gave me a half smile.
“Thank you,” she said. “And now. . . .”
She was interrupted by a voice behind my chair.
“Molly! Really, how very inconsiderate! I’ve been searching all over the town for you.”
I rose to face her over-neat and disapproving-looking mother.
“Won’t you sit down?” I asked.
“I suppose I shall have to, now that my daughter has brought me in here. Rather than cause more talk, I will. But it’s not very pleasant for me to be in this place, with everyone staring at us.”
Molly sighed and for the first time that I had heard, she had an answer to her mother.
“What does it matter whether they stare or not?” she asked wearily.
“It may not matter to you, said her mother. “You may be past such things. But it does to me. I’ve never in all my life given anyone cause to talk about me, and I’m not used to it. Yes, please, a cup of coffee. Yes, and perhaps it would look more natural if I had a cake. Thank you, one of those meringues will do nicely.”
She was not too embarrassed by the attention which her daughter had attracted to cope very capably with a large cream meringue, a type of cake I have never been able to eat successfully.
“And there was something else that Molly ought to have told that policeman the other day,” she went on when she had left only a few crumbs on her plate and one adhering obstinately to her chin.
“Mother!” her daughter broke in. Molly looked distressed.
“Yes. It should be known,” said Mrs. Cutler primly, “this young man, this Rogers, once told Molly that if ever the need arose he didn’t lack the means to commit murder.”
“But of course he didn’t. Who, as a matter of fact, does?” I returned, and I felt that Molly was pleased with my indifference.
As soon as Mrs. Cutler thought it expedient, she and her daughter got up and left the cafe. But Molly smiled sadly back to me.