Case without a Corpse, Chapter Eighteen

Case without a Corpse

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

“Post office first, then Rectory,” said Stute, as we approached Long Highbury.  “From pretty considerable experience I know them, in nine cases out of ten, to be the main gossip-shops.  Pubs, postmen, and porters are sometimes useful, but their memories are shorter.”
“Well, you should know.”
Now that we were actually drawing near to the scene of our enquiries I felt rather more interest in them.  The long drive across country had made me sleepy in the early afternoon, but as we flashed by the first outlying houses of the village, built of grey Cotswold stone, for Long Highbury was near the Gloucestershire border, I was fully awake again.
The village itself was most attractive, a huddle of houses and farms lying in the folds of a light mist.  There was the church, a blunt square tower with a long nave drawn behind it, there was the inn, a large building, the gaily-painted boards of which made a gallant contrast with the grey stone of the place.  And here, as Stute drew up, I saw the combined village shop and post office.
The door tinkled happily as Stute opened it, and we found ourselves with just room to stand among the goods displayed.  An oil-stove gave out a dry warmth and a faint odour of paraffin, but stronger than this latter was the friendly smell of oranges, cheese, bacon, biscuits, and firewood which permeates all village general stores and is rather appetizing than otherwise.
The shopkeeper (and postmaster) looked up through the thick lenses of his spectacles and said, “Yes?”
“A large Players, please,” said Stute.
While he was being served he came straight to the point.
“I wonder whether you could help me,” he said.  “I’m looking for a man called Freeman who was here with his wife some years ago.”
The shopkeeper looked up.  I suddenly perceived that he possessed that irritating quality, extreme caution.
“What about him?” he asked, non-committally.
“I want to trace him, that’s all.”
“’Fraid I can’t help you,” said the shopkeeper.  “He was only here a short time.”
“I know.  But any information you can give me about him would be welcome.  I’m from Scotland Yard,” he added.
Again that wary glance.  “What has he done?” asked the shopkeeper.
Stute seemed to think that in order to get what he wanted he must give a certain amount in return.
“It’s not what he’s done,” he returned, “but we have reason to think that he may have been murdered.”
The shopkeeper looked suitably startled.
“What, round here?” he asked.
“No, no.  In quite a different part of the world.  At any rate Mr. Freeman is missing, and I hoped you might be able to tell us something about him which would help us to trace him.”
At that the shopkeeper really seemed to make an effort to recall Freeman.
“I don’t think I can.  He had what we call the Old Cottage, at the other end of the village.  He was there about six months.  Very quiet people, they were.  Paid up weekly.”
“Know where they came from?”
“No.  I understood that they had just retired.  They meant to settle down here, but they found it too quiet for them.”
“Where did they go to?”
“That I can’t say.  But I daresay the Rector might be able to tell you.  They went to church a good deal, I understood.”
“Did they?” asked Stute.  “Oh yes.  Great church people.  We’re chapel ourselves, so of course we know nothing about—that.  But it’s what I heard.”
“Did they make any other friends here?” asked Stute.
“Not that I know of.  They were quite civil with everyone but not what you’d call sociable.  I believe I remember hearing something about Mr. Freeman giving a big subscription to one of the Rector’s charities, but I don’t know what truth there was in that.”
“I’m very much obliged to you,” said Stute, “and I’ll see the Rector.  Good afternoon.”
I had been amused to notice, during this interview, what a different manner of questioning Stute had when he was dealing with a person from whom information had to be drawn.  When people came up to him breathless with excitement and anxious to tell all they knew, he was curt and chilly.  But with a man like this he could be polite, almost insinuating.
“That’s something new about our friend Fairfax,” he said, “A church-goer, was he?  Well, well.  Some of our neatest criminals have been that.”
We got back into the car, and Stute asked a passing errand boy the way to the Rectory.  He pointed towards a great grey-stone house, half visible from where we sat, and some three hundred yards away.  It stood among splendid trees, but it had that look of slightly decayed grandeur which so many of such parsonages, built towards the beginning of the last century, seem to have nowadays.  The gate into the drive was open, and we soon pulled up before an imposing porch.
Stute tugged at a wrought-iron bell-pull, and somewhere in the bowels of the house a bell tolled lugubriously.  After an interval a diminutive servant appeared.
“Is the Rector in?” asked Stute.
“What name?” piped the child.
“Inspector Stute and Mr. Townsend.”
The servant looked rather startled, and hesitated.
“It’s all right,” smiled Stute.  “We have only come to make a few enquiries.”
As though hypnotized, the small servant backed into the hall, and we followed her.  She showed us, without speaking, into a draughty drawing-room without a fire in it, and disappeared.  I glanced about me at the crowded but chilly display of ornamental china, and shuddered.
But the Rector soon entered, and to our relief we found that he had none of the rowdy egotism of the Vicar of Chopley.  He was a little lean, rather unwashed-looking man, with half an inch of underclothing showing below his cuff at either wrist.  But he had a conciliatory smile, and a manner of speaking at once jerky and ingratiating.
“I understand,” he said, “that you represent Scotland Yard.  Wish to ask me some questions?”
“That’s so,” said Stute.  “I want to ask you about a man called Freeman.”
“Freeman?  Do you mean my Curate?  Really, how very disagreeable.  Has he been guilty of some misdemeanour?  I have always refused to listen to the rumours there have been. . . .”
“No, no,” said Stute, impatiently.
I was reminded of Beef’s reflections that morning.  You never know what you’re going to find out about anyone he said.  But I made no remark.
“No, sir,” Stute went on, “not your curate.  A man called Freeman and his wife who lived here about two years and three months ago.  He occupied, I understand, the Old Cottage in your parish.”
The Rector smiled nervously.
“Oh you mean Mr. Hugo Freeman.  Why yes, to be sure.  Charming people.  But surely. . . .” he suddenly grew serious.
“The supposition is, explained Stute, that this man Freeman may have been murdered.”
“Murdered, eh?  Dear, dear.  Well I never.  That’s bad.  Delightful people, too.  Look here, we can’t stand talking here.  Come along into the study.  We were just going to have tea.  My wife will be most interested.  That is, distressed.  Come along.  Give me your coats.  Poor Freeman.  Well, well.  In the midst of life.  This way, please.”
He led us through the tiled hall, and opened a door beyond it.  I was delighted at the prospect of a cup of tea, and gladly entered the study.
If the drawing-room had been cold, this was in distinct contrast.  I can only describe it as stuffy.  It was a small room, over-furnished, and a bright fire lit its grate.  I could see no less than three cats, and had reason to suppose that there were more.  In an arm-chair by the fire the Rector’s wife was sitting and replaced a piece of buttered crumpet on her plate before greeting us.  She was a big blowsy woman with untidy hair, and a voice like a man’s.
“My dear,” began the Rector, “from Scotland Yard.  Inspector Stute.  Mr. Townsend.  It’s about poor Freeman.”
The Rector’s wife sat up, too startled to acknowledge the informal introduction.  “You know what I always told you,” she said loudly.  “You ought never to have given him so much liberty. . . .”
No, no, my dear.  Not Freeman.  Hugo Freeman.  At the Old Cottage, you remember Poor fellow.  It appears he’s been murdered.”
“Oh,” said his wife, evidently relieved, “I thought you meant Freeman.  Do sit down Inspector.  I’ll ring for some fresh tea.  Murdered, you say?  (Get down, will you, Tibbits.  You shall have your milk presently.)  How very, very terrible.  They were such nice people.”
Stute, gratefully eating bread and butter seemed content to let the talk take its own course.
The Rector went on.  “Yes, charming folk.  Just retired, so I understood.  Business for many years in Liverpool.  Accountancy, I believe.  Most wearing.  I’m no good at figures.  And they hoped to settle here.  Pity, now, they didn’t.  Such a quiet parish.  But plenty to do,” he added, hurriedly, “plenty to do.”
“My husband works much too hard.  I always tell him he’s too conscientious.  He’ll wear himself out.  But about Mr. Freeman.  I wonder who could have murdered him.  Ah, here’s your tea.  Two lumps.  And you, Mr. Townsend?  So you’re investigating the case, Inspector?”
“Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.  We don’t know that Freeman has been murdered.  But he’s disappeared.”
“There, there.  Poor fellow,” said the Rector.  “Such a good chap.  So generous.  Only had to ask him.  Do anything for the church.  How was he murdered?  Oh, you don’t know of course.  Try that cake, do.”
“I was wondering,” managed Stute, “whether you could help us.”
“Delighted, “murmured the Rector mechanically, “anything I can do.”
“Do you know where he had come from when he got here?”
“Where was it, my dear?  Liverpool, wasn’t it?  Or Birmingham?”
“Manchester, I rather think,” said his wife.
“One of those places, anyway,” summarized the Rector.
“And what did you say had been his profession?”
“He had just retired when he got here.  Accountancy.  Estate Agent.  Something of the sort.  I forget the details.  But he had substantial means.”
“Quite.  And while he was here?”
“Exemplary.  A splendid parishioner.  Regularly at church.  Helping hand.  A charming man.”
“And after he had gone?”
“We never heard from them.  Most disappointing.  But people are like that.  My wife was hurt at first.”
“Well, it was rather rude,” said the Rector’s wife.
“Didn’t you write to them?”
“They forgot to leave their address.  And the post office never had it, either.  They had to return several letters, I understand.  Chiefly circulars, Brown said.  Brown’s our postmaster.  Long-headed chap.”
“So you’ve no idea where the Freemans went?”
“They hadn’t decided.  They were going to put their furniture into store, they said.  Have a holiday.  Poor souls, they’d never been abroad.”
“You mean they went abroad from here?”
“Yes.  To France.”
“How did you know they went to France?”
“They told me so.  Besides, I signed their application for a passport.”
Stute was silent a moment, staring fixedly at the nervous Rector.
“You remember that?” he asked at last.
“Indeed I do.  Freeman was smiling over it.  A man of his age who had never needed a passport.  Poor chap!  His passport’s for Another Place now.  But that one is in order, I’m sure.”
“Have some more cake?” said his wife.
“And what countries was it made out for?”
“France.  Only France.  I remember that.  I remarked on it at the time.”
“I see.  Well, I needn’t trouble you further, Rector.  Thank you so much for your information.”
“And for tea,” I put in, trying to cover his brusqueness with a smile.
“Not at all.  Delighted.  Pleasure,” said the Rector, and I believed him.  “Sad business,” he added.
“Awfully sad,” said his wife.  “Sure you won’t have any more to eat?  (Oh, don’t scratch, Lucille.)  Was his wife murdered too?”
Stute was already leaving the room, so I gave a rather unsatisfactory shake of the head in answer to this parting question, and then followed the Rector and Inspector through the hall.  We shook hands briefly with our host, and went down the steep steps of his gloomy house.  Stute hurriedly lit a cigarette, and blew lustily from it, as though there was something in his lungs which he wanted entirely to expel.