Neck and Neck
The Reverend Alfred Ridley was Vicar of St. John’s, a parish in a respectable suburb south of the Thames. Beef had warned him that we were coming to see him in the afternoon and it was about half-past two, after an uneventful drive to London, that we drew up at a large Victorian redbrick house that was the vicarage. Alfred Ridley belonged neither to the type of clergyman typified by the vicar down at Hastings—extremely devout, impractical, usually tall, emaciated and untidy, and almost invariably a bachelor— nor to his extreme opposite—the round-faced tubby cleric, often a rowing man at Oxford or Cambridge, hearty, well-fed, with a large family, who prides himself on no nonsense and meeting his parishioners as man to man. He was of the type who become deans and bishops, having something of the fanatical faith of the former but combined with a practical grip of Church politics. He had read deeply and had written several treatises which were held in high esteem. In addition, he had a deeper worldly wisdom than the latter type and conducted the business side of his job with cold efficiency. All this I was soon to learn.
We were shown into a large airy room. “This is my workroom,” Alfred Ridley said, after greeting Beef and being introduced to me, and, as I looked round, I could appreciate his description. On a large flat desk was a typewriter, calendar, diary with numerous neat entries, a row of reference books—I noted Crockford’s, Who’s Who, and an as well as many clerical books with which I was not familiar—a telephone with a filed list of numerous numbers as well as several directories, private notepaper and envelopes and a large fat wad of foolscap. The walls were lined with books, not the kind which his late brother would have housed, but what seemed to me a pretty comprehensive collection— English literature, the classics, a good deal of the more serious modern stuff, and a whole wall packed with theological books. “I’ve just had a wire from Gloucestershire,” he went on. “I arranged for them to let me know the result of the inquest held this morning. Wilful Murder by Person or Persons Unknown. Well now, Sergeant, much as I wish to see the culprit apprehended, I think we can safely leave that in the hands of the police, don’t you? You got my letter, I hope?”
“I’m afraid, sir,” Beef replied, “once I’ve started on a case I must see it through. It’s my reputation, you see, I have to think of. I told you that, you remember, the morning you came to see me and signed my contract . . .”
“My dear fellow, of course I realise that legally you are in the right, but I thought that naturally you’d be reasonable. You wouldn’t care to take a sum of money, I’m sure, without—what shall we say—earning it honestly.”
“Oh, I shall earn it, all right,” Beef replied. “You’ll see. I shall get to the bottom of this business before I’ve finished. The sooner I do that the better. That’s why I’ve come to see you. I want your help. I want to know as much about your brother as you can tell me. At the moment it would appear that his murder was without any motive, though, if I may say so, there seem to be quite a few people with whom he wasn’t very popular.”
“As I said,” the vicar replied, “I naturally wish this unpleasant affair to be cleared up and I will of course give you all the help I can. Let me see now what I have on this afternoon.” He consulted his diary. “Nothing very much till five o’clock. Then two appointments for which my curate can deputise. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just phone him.
“Now,” he said, as he put down the receiver, “I’m at your service. You want some account of my brother as I knew him. I can’t pretend, even though he is dead, that he was a likeable man in every respect. Though he was a successful business man, he was, I’m afraid, very close with money. In my early days, when I was struggling with a family—before our father died and left us both comfortably off—he could so easily have helped me. A few hundred would have meant so much then. However, I must not dwell on that side of his character. He made amends in the end and, as you know, my children benefit from a very generous life insurance policy which he took out on their behalf.”
He paused to light a cigarette and, as an afterthought, handed round his case. I took one and Beef produced his enormous pipe.
“Perhaps I should go back to our early days. Our father, who died many years ago, was a merchant in Mincing Lane, dealing with India and the East and was modestly successful. He sent us both to a good school”—he named a well known public school—“and as I was going into the Church, he sent me on to Oxford. Edwin was at first a bitter disappointment to my father. He would not go into the family business but wanted to become a writer. In those days he was a shy self-contained young man, a year older than I. My father sent him abroad on the continent for two years. He lived with a family, a French family, at Tours and a German family in Hanover. My father’s view was that if his attempt at writing failed, the knowledge of the best French and German would be a help commercially. When he came back, he seemed little changed. Still very sensitive and wrapped up in himself. I was surprised, therefore, when one day he called me to his room, swore me to secrecy and then produced the manuscript of a novel he had written a year before. He had already submitted it to two or three publishers, who had turned it down, and he showed me the rejection slips. Then he took a letter from his pocket and gave it to me to read. It was from a publisher of whom I had never heard. The publisher, apparently, was very taken with my brother’s book, thought it showed much talent and promise of great things in the future. He would count it an honour to be allowed to sponsor the publication. Unfortunately, as things were, he could not undertake the whole financial risk himself, but if my brother would care to share with him the expense he would be delighted to launch what he hoped and believed would be a new star in the literary firmament, or words to that extent.”
A thin smile appeared for a moment as he said this, and then he went on. “My brother, of course, was thrilled at this eulogy, and I too caught his excitement;, We were very young. I persuaded him to allow me to speak to our father about this. The result was that my father, proud of a son who could do something quite beyond his own comprehension, agreed at once to put up the money. The book was published.”
The vicar paused, and I looked at Beef, wondering whether he was still interested in this apparently irrelevant story. He was puffing contentedly away at his pipe and I could see he was carefully following the vicar’s words.
“Ordinarily, of course, the book would have passed by unnoticed. It was a terribly bad book, of course—a silly historical romance. One or two provincial papers dismissed it in half a line, and then the unfortunate—or fortunate— thing happened. A weekly paper got hold of it and tore it to pieces in a long article, asking how such rubbish came to be foisted on the public and casting a few very nasty innuendoes at the firm of publishers.
“This had a most curious result. It cured my brother of ever writing another word and turned him into the—I must say avaricious, I’m afraid—misanthrope you have heard about. At his express wish my father bought him a partnership in the very firm which had published his book. The senior partner was an old man, who died some ten years later. My brother carried on the business. Curious, if it hadn’t been for that vicious criticism of his novel he might have remained an unknown impecunious writer. As it is, he has died a wealthy and successful man.”
“He was a widower, wasn’t he?” Beef asked.
“Yes. His wife died over ten years ago.”
“No children?” Beef queried.
“None of his own,” the vicar replied. “There is a stepson. My brother married a widow, you see. Her married name was Howard, and she had a son, Roger Howard, who would be about the middle thirties now. He never got on, unfortunately, with his stepfather, and when he was twenty-one and came into a thousand or so from his mother, he quarrelled violently with my brother Edwin and left home. I’ve never heard my brother speak of him since. I know he cut him right out of his Will. Everything goes now to our elder sister’s girl, Estelle Pinkerton. My brother was more fond of his sister than anyone else in the world, and when she and her husband were killed in an air crash he told me what he had decided to do with his money. Estelle and Roger were to have equal shares of everything, but he increased his life insurance heavily and left my children to benefit from that. He knew I was comfortable enough with what had come to us from the family business. Estelle has been living on her mother’s share of that, which was not very large, but I daresay as an unmarried young woman—she’s about thirty-eight now—it was sufficient for her needs.”
“Owing to this quarrel with his stepson Roger,” Beef said, “his niece Estelle Pinkerton, you say, comes into the lot. Where does she live? I understand she was staying in London at the time of her uncle’s death.”
“Yes, she was up for a few days from Cheltenham, where she settled after her parents’ death. She was slaying with some old family friends, the Remingtons. He’s dean of Fulham, you know.”
“Her address, in case I have to get in touch with her,” Beef asked, producing his large notebook.
“Fairy Glen, 10 Puesdown Road, Cheltenham,” the vicar said, and Beef wrote it down slowly.
“Thank you very much,” Beef said, rising and refusing the offer of tea. “I think I’ve got all I want from you of his family life. Just one more question. I’m not going to beat about the bush. You know that a lot of people didn’t like him. That’s putting it mildly. You know also that he was always having rows. Can you think of anything like that which might have been serious enough to turn to murder?”
The vicar was silent for a moment or two. His eyes were fixed on a window and he seemed oblivious of us. Then he turned quickly to Beef.
“No, I can’t think of anything that could possibly have led to murder. Well, if you can’t stay for a cup of tea, I must be getting on. A hundred and one things to do. We parsons work nowadays, you know. Now what about your fee. . . .”
Beef interrupted him. “We’ll see about that later when I’ve cleared up the case. Well, sir, goodbye. By the way, you’ve no idea how I could get in touch with Roger Howard, the stepson?”
“None at all, I’m afraid. I heard he went to South America after the quarrel. My niece Estelle may know something. They were friendly at one time.”
We motored back to town and I dropped Beef at his home, after arranging to meet him on the following day for lunch. I had already fixed for Michael Thorogood, my literary agent, to be there, and he had promised to tell Beef all he could about the notorious firm of Thomas Thayer, of which for many years Ridley had been sole proprietor.
First I thought I would drive straight back to my flat, but the thought of a solitary dinner did not seem attractive, so I parked the car in Waterloo Place and strolled up Hay-market. Someone had taken me a little time before into a new restaurant called The Flying Dutchman which was being run by an alleged member of the resistance movement in Holland and was plentifully splashed with orange. The meal had been good, so I thought I would try it again. As I entered and walked towards the little semi-circular bar on the left, I noticed that a special table was being laid for about ten people. Waiters were fussing round with flowers and buckets of ice and I noticed an expensive-looking menu at every place.
I ordered a dry martini and, for something to say, I asked the barman what all the fuss was about. “Oh, it is for a gentleman who comes here very often. He is giving a special dinner-party to a few friends from the Dutch East Indies. Ah, here he is. Good evening, sir.” The barman’s voice achieved that special timbre of intimate flattery that seems never to fail with clients whose money only equals their pretension.
I looked round to see who this potentate from the East might be, and nearly spilt my drink as I recognised Gupp coming towards the bar. For a moment he seemed equally taken aback at seeing me, but he recovered himself quickly and held out his hand.
“Hullo, Lionel,” he greeted me heartily. “Have a drink.”
“No thanks,” I replied, without very much enthusiasm. “I’ve got a full one here.”
“Oh, Lionel,” he went on, drawing me out of earshot of the barman. “I suppose you think it’s rather strange to find me here, splashing money around. Especially after that weekend at Hastings.”
I made some noncommittal reply about it being none of my business, but he did not seem satisfied with that.
“Tell you the truth I’ve had a bit of luck since then,” he said. “I can’t tell you now, but forget all I said to you and your brother. I was a bit worried at the time.”
I finished my drink, and left Hilton Gupp greeting the firstcomers to his party and showering drinks on them. I could not help wondering who had suffered for what he called his “bit of luck”.
I left The Flying Dutchman, not wishing to witness cousin Gupp spending what I thought were probably ill-gotten gains, and had a quick snack elsewhere. Then, picking up my car, I returned to my flat.
It was pleasant to be back again, even if it were only for a night or two. I poured out a whisky and soda and lit a cigarette. So much had happened since the morning I had heard of Aunt Aurora’s death. There had been the realisation that I should in future be comparatively well-off. Then there was my brother’s marriage to Edith Payne. I wondered how she would fit into the atmosphere of a public school. There was something about her of the hospital nurse, a sort of aseptic impersonality, that would guarantee the cleanliness of the dormitories, but would not, I feared, endear her to the boys in my brother’s House.
A hundred different ideas came to me when I began to think about my share of Aunt Aurora’s money. A house in the country? Somehow I did not feel I would want to be so far away from the interest and excitement of Beef’s cases. Travel? To begin with I did not think one could travel nowadays, as people did once, going from place to place in a leisurely way without a plan and turning up in England a year later bronzed and with a fund of improbable stories. Not with Treasury restrictions, visas, and a thousand other forms. Besides, most of the world that one wanted to see was either behind the Iron Curtain or in a zone where war was only just round the corner.
Perhaps I would get married instead.