Case without a Corpse
I awoke next morning to find that the rain had ceased and the wind dropped. There was even a feeble attempt at winter sunlight. But when I got down to breakfast, I found Mrs. Simmons walking about on tip-toe, and speaking in whispers. It seemed that she wished to be conscious of a corpse in the house.
Sergeant Beef arrived about ten o’clock, looking very dejected.
“Well?” I asked him as I emptied my last cup of tea, and lit a cigarette.
“I’ve been on to ’em,” he said, “and only got it in the neck for my trouble. It seems as this isn’t regarded as anythink out of the way. I got to trace young Rogers’s movements yesterday, and find out ’oo ’e’s done for.”
“I rather thought that view might be taken,” I said. “It seemed to me last night that you were getting worked up too soon. After all, it was only yesterday that the murder happened. The corpse must come to light. How could he have got rid of it otherwise? Or else you’ll , hear who’s missing.”
“P’raps you’re right. I ’ope so, anyway. On’y there’s several things I don’t like about the ’ole business. Why didn’t young Rogers say ’oo it was ’e’d murdered? ’E’d decided to confess and then poison ’isself. It would ’ave ’een just as easy for ’im to ’ave said, ’I’ve killed so-and-so,’ as to ’ave just said ’e’d committed a murder, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, if it turns out to be his aunt, it’s understandable. That would have been too much for him to have admitted.”
“I don’t believe it was his aunt, some’ow. Anyway, she’s due in on the eleven-fifteen, and I’m going down to the station to see if she turns up.”
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
Only last night I had decided to get back to London, and escape the investigation of this all too sordid affair. But after my nocturnal part in it, I couldn’t somehow. My curiosity was thoroughly aroused.
We set out from the Mitre and walked through the busy central street of the little town. The Sergeant answered greetings in an almost surly manner—he was noticeably out of spirits. His liver, I fancied, was not always in the best of conditions during the early morning, and to-day he had not had enough sleep. I glanced aside and saw that his expression was glum, his eyes a trifle bloodshot, and the fringes of his ginger moustache were damp.
On the platform was little Mr. Rogers, pacing impatiently up and down. There were still ten minutes before the train was due, so that he must have arrived early. I thought he looked shabby and pathetic, and he was too preoccupied to notice that he had stepped in a puddle at the further end of the platform. He had not seen us, and Sergeant Beef avoided him, as he made directly for the refreshment room, which had just opened.
“Wot you g’t’ave . . .” he asked me.
I had only just finished breakfast, but Beef swallowed a beer gratefully.
“That’s better!” he sighed, as he laid down the glass.
We went out on to the platform again to see the train approaching from the distance. By the time we reached Mr. Rogers its noise was loud enough to drown his absently mumbled good morning. But before it had stopped we saw a plump, smiling, middle-aged woman waving to him from the window of a third-class carriage.
The little man darted forward. “Madge!” he said before she had had time to descend, “where have you been?”
She was flushed and beaming, as though she had some jolly secret to communicate. “Didn’t you get my telegram?”
“Yes, but . . . staying away all night . . . I’ve been nearly off my head with worry. And something’s happened. Something terrible. . . . .”
Mrs. Rogers was on the platform now. “What is it, Alf?” Her smile had gone. And when her husband failed to answer. “Something to do with Alan?”
Mr. Rogers nodded. And as though to save us from being present while the painful disclosure was made, Sergeant Beef stepped forward.
“Well, Mr. Rogers,” he said, “now as you’ve got your good lady back, I’ll be trotting along. I told you she’d be ’ere all right now, didn’t I?” And he and I began to walk away, leaving the old man to break his tragic news. “I’ll pop round and see you this afternoon,” Sergeant Beef called back, as we made for the ticket-collector.
After that the Sergeant went back to the station. He explained that he had a number of things to do in connection with routine. He had to make arrangements for the inquest, he said, and receive reports. He did not intend to start “the real investigation” until that afternoon, but he did not see why I shouldn’t be present when he went to take statements. I thanked him for that concession with a smile. I knew his weakness for his large notebook, and guessed that he would like an audience during his ponderous questioning.
At two o’clock, therefore, we started out. Beef shewed me a formidable list of people whom he intended to question.
“Always as well to make a list of ’em,” he said, “then you don’t forget no one. I remember the time I was investigating all that ’ow-d’ye-do down in Sussex when they’d pinched the postmistress’s bicycle, it was through someone as I’d clean forgot to put on my list that I found out about it. Only shews, doesn’t it? Now the first I’ve got down to-day is that Molly Cutler wot came tearing into the pub last night just after young Rogers ’ad poisoned himself. She lives with ’er mother in an ’ouse out this way.”
The house was semi-detached, but neat and pleasant, with a small square of well-kept garden to it, and fresh white blinds in its windows. The Sergeant marched up to the front door, and rang.
Miss Cutler herself opened it. She was pale and looked wretchedly ill, but she was quite calm.
“Yes,” she said, “I expected you, Sergeant. Come in.”
She led us to a “front room” in which a bright fire burnt, and there were chairs which looked as though covers had recently been removed from them. In a moment her mother had followed us into the room, a grey-haired person, very neatly dressed, who looked as though she disapproved of most things, but particularly of us.
“Sit down, please,” she said coldly. “I should like to be present while you ask my daughter whatever you have to ask her.”
Beef was already pulling out his notebook, and according to his habit he came with brutal bluntness to the point.
“Was this young Rogers carrying on with you?” he asked Molly Cutler.
I saw the old lady stiffen, but she said nothing.
“We were engaged,” the girl said quietly.
“Secretly engaged,” put in her mother, “and without my consent.”
“Secretly engaged,” repeated Beef, writing laboriously. When his pencil had finished its slow work, he looked up again.
“’Ow long had this been going on?” he asked.
“It was during his last leave that we became engaged. About two months back.”
“Did you know of anyone he had a grudge against?”
“No. He wasn’t a fellow to bear a grudge.”
“No one it would ’ave been in ’is interest to do away with?”
“There wasn’t no other woman, I s’pose?”
Molly Cutler was silent, but her mother broke in. She spoke with a voice in which you could hear suppressed anger against an old grievance. “There most certainly was another woman,” she said, “and one with whom that reprobate was involved more deeply than he was with my daughter.”
Owing to the time it took him to write, Beef’s cross-examinations seemed always very protracted. It was thirty seconds before he spoke.
“What was ’er name?” he asked.
“Stella Smythe,” said the mother. “He called her an actress, but she was nothing less than a bad woman.”
“When did he see her last?”
In answer to that Mrs. Cutler only spoke one word, but it was hissed out with audible venom. And the information it gave was sensational.
“Yesterday!” she said.
“Yesterday? ’Ow d’you know that?” asked Beef, forgetting his solemnity in the excitement of that revelation.
“You tell him, Molly,” said the old lady.
The girl began to speak in a toneless voice, as though she knew only too well that she had to tell the story, but had no interest in it any more. “Alan had never deceived me about this girl,” she said. “He had known her some years ago in London. And he had once taken her to Chopley for a week-end. That was two years ago. After that he had given her a sum of money, and left her in London. He knew he was wrong, but she was . . . an immoral girl, too. He hoped he would never see her again. He left his ship about that time, and went to work on a different Line. She lost touch with him, I suppose. But it seems that this time she had got to know his ship, and where he lived, and when he got home there was a letter waiting for him, saying that she was coming down to Chopley again, and that if he didn’t come and see her, she would come over to his aunt and uncle’s house and make a scene. He told me all this quite frankly, and shewed me the letter.”
While she spoke I watched Molly Cutler, and admired her. Hers was beauty of the rather conventional English type; she had none of the buxom grace so admired by Latins. But her complexion was delicate and lovely, her eyes honest and wide, her whole being almost flower-like. I was sure, too, that she was speaking the truth.
“It was the night before last,” she continued, “when he shewed me the letter. He said he would go over the next day, that was yesterday, to see her, and settle it once and for all. He said that it was money she wanted. He would give it to her, but he had to be sure that she would not worry us again.”
“And did he go?” asked Sergeant Beef.
The girl looked up. “I don’t know,” she said.
“You never saw him again?”
“Not until last night.”
“’Ow was that?”
“We had arranged to meet at seven o’clock.”
“Arranged to meet? Why shouldn’t ’e come ’ere?”
Mrs. Cutler chimed in again. “The whole thing was being carried on surreptitiously. My daughter knew that it was against my wishes.”
“Oh, I see. And where ’ad you arranged to meet at seven o’clock?”
“Outside the Cinema.”
A sound like a snort came from Mrs. Cutler, but the girl ignored it. She seemed too proud and too profoundly unhappy to make any retaliation to her mother.
“And ’e never turned up?”
“’Ow was it you came rushing into the Mitre, then?”
Mrs. Cutler was appalled. “Into the Mitre? Did you really, Molly? I am ashamed of you.”
“Someone told me later that he had gone there.”
“Who told you?”
“A girl I met. Flora Robinson. She saw him go there from his uncle’s shop. I . . . couldn’t understand it. I had waited an hour for him that evening. I felt I had to see him at once. I was going to call him out. . . .”
“Not ’ardly wise, that wouldn’t ’ave been, Miss,” observed Sergeant Beef philosophically. “Men don’t never take kindly to being called out of anywhere like that by a woman. . . .”
Mrs. Cutler spoke icily. “Perhaps you will limit your observations to the unpleasant matter in hand,” she said.
Beef seemed to remember himself. “Certainly, Ma’am,” he said. “And there isn’t nothink else you can tell me, Miss Cutler?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Except that whoever Alan has killed it must have been in self-defence, or in a fight or something. It wasn’t in his nature to do a cowardly act. Of course, I know you never liked him, Sergeant. . . .”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Yes. He thought you had a down on him. Ever since you arrested him that time.”
“Oh, he did.”
“Well, that’s what he thought. He used to say—of course I don’t suppose he meant anything by it—that he’d get his own back on you some day.”
“I see. Well, he seems to have done it. He’s given me a myst’ry to solve as’ll very likely end in my getting into trouble. ’Owever. . . .”
Miss Cutler did not seem to have been listening. “There was one other thing,” she said. “He spoke of being followed.”
“Followed?” gasped the Sergeant.
“Yes. He didn’t give any details, and I thought it was his imagination. But he said he was being followed.”
“M’m,” said Beef as he picked up his hat, “that’s funny.” And again, after a long, thoughtful pause, “That’s funny.”