Neck and Neck
Fairy Glen, the home of Estelle Pinkerton, we found when we called to see her that afternoon, was a diminutive white house on the outskirts of Cheltenham. The path from the front gate was of crazy pavement, and, though only some fifteen yards long, had been made to curve to and fro on its way to the front door. The lawn on either side was encumbered with little coloured china ornaments, pixies and mushrooms. There was a miniature pool about the size of a hand basin, no doubt with gold fish in it, and a bridge like a bit of rustic Meccano spanning it. Dwarf shrubs grew around the house, while the gate and all the paintwork of the house was painted yellow and blue. A small wooden windmill about three feet high and a teeny weeny dovecote filled what was left of the garden.
I lifted a brass ring on the door, on which was inscribed “Knock, Friend”, to beat a tattoo, but before I had time to do so the door opened.
“Are you Mr. Beef?” were the opening words of a woman who could only be Miss Pinkerton herself. “Do come in. I got your telegram this morning. I’ve heard all about you from my Uncle Alfred. The vicar of St. John’s, you know. Such a clever man.”
Estelle Pinkerton was a perfect blend with her house. Small, with a pink and white complexion she wore gaily coloured clothes, a woollen jumper festooned with little balls of wool that she had obviously made herself, and a skirt that seemed to me to have lots of unnecessary bits and frills.
The inside of the house, too, matched the outside. Coloured calendars, pictures of pets and flowers on the bright walls, books by A.A. Milne and Michael Fairless in limp leather enclosed by china book-rests. The chair on which Beef sat looked as if it would collapse under his weight at any moment.
“I don’t often have men visitors to my little home. Quite a rare pleasure.” A flush of colour had come into her pink cheeks as she prattled on, and she seemed quite breathless at this unusual excitement.
“Mr. Beef, you don’t look very comfortable,” she went on. “Let me get you another cushion. Perhaps you’d both like a nice cup of tea after your journey.”
We declined tea, and Beef cleared his throat.
“I’ve come to see you about your uncle’s death,” he began, but Miss Pinkerton interrupted him.
“Oh, I know all about you. My uncle told me in his letter I was to answer all your questions. He hoped you’d soon have the horrid business all cleared up. So nice to have a man like Uncle Alfred to advise a lonely spinster like me in these difficult days. I don’t know what I should have done without him.”
“You were staying with the dean of Fulham at the time of the murder, I think?” Beef went on.
“Oh yes. The Remingtons are very old family friends. Whenever I go to London, I always stay with them.”
“Do you often go to London, Miss Pinkerton?” Beef asked.
“No, indeed, Mr. Beef,” she replied. “I only go once or twice a year usually. It’s so expensive. Besides, Cheltenham is so good for shopping. Our shops are quite as good as the London ones, I always say.”
“Did your friends invite you or did you have some special reason for going this time?” Beef queried, breaking into her garrulous flow as politely as he could.
“I felt I must see Uncle Alfred and my cousins before the winter. I hate travelling in the cold weather. When winter comes I shut myself up here like a little dormouse.” She beamed round at us. “So I wrote to Ethel Remington, and replied she’d be delighted to have me for a few days.”
“I’m sorry to ask you, but would you repeat what you told the police about your visit. The dates and what you did.”
“Of course, Mr. Beef. Let me see now. I went up on the eighth of September by the morning train. It’s such a good time and you get quite a nice lunch. Sometimes one meets such nice people. I always book a seat at a table for two, and I’ve made many friends that way. Where was I now? Oh, yes, I arrived at the Remingtons for tea. We went to the theatre that night.”
“It’s the day of the murder I’d like you to tell us about again,” Beef said, a little impatiently. “That was the tenth of September.”
“Oh, you want to know where I was when poor Uncle Edwin was being done to death. As I told the police, I spent the entire evening at their house with the dean and his wife. They had a small dinner-party for me and we played games after. It was quite gay. I remember the last guests didn’t leave I eleven. Then the three of us sat talking and drinking Ovaltine till past midnight. It was my last night, you see, and we really hadn’t had a chance for a good chat about the past and all our friends. We’d been out to the theatre and to a recital the other two nights. I used to go out after breakfast and do my shopping. I knew they were busy all day so I used to have my lunch at the Army and Navy Stores. Rations are so difficult nowadays, and I didn’t want to put them out, especially as I’d asked myself.”
I was getting bored with her long recital and began to look at the numerous water colours that covered the walls. Miss Pinkerton saw this.
“Ah, Mr. Townsend, I see you’re looking at my poor little pictures. The arts, I’m afraid, now are my only pleasure. I don’t know what I’d do without my easel, my piano and my acting in our little dramatic society. Such an inspiration I find them all. Those two water colours over the mantelpiece are of my grandfather’s château in Normandy. I often go over and stay there. Such lovely sketching country. Those over by the window are souvenirs of last summer in Cornwall. Those three next to you I’m rather proud of. They’re my latest. The beach and casino at Estoril. I felt quite brave going all the way to Portugal by myself, but I had a lovely time. There was no trouble about language. Everyone in Estoril seemed to speak English. I must show you my portfolio. I’ve some I’m very fond of that I did of the lakes. My one little extravagance. I take a month’s holiday every year and go somewhere and paint, even if I have to save up all the year for it.”
“Well, you won’t have to do that now,” I said. “Your uncle has made you a rich woman, Miss Pinkerton. You’d have quite a fortune when this unpleasant business is cleared up. I’m sure my friend Beef will find the criminal pretty soon. You’ll be able to make life one long painting holiday. . . .”
“Unless you’ve any other plans,” Beef broke in. “Perhaps you’re thinking of getting married. You should, you know, an attractive young woman like you.”
Miss Pinkerton had turned a deep scarlet. It was most embarrassing. I thought it was too bad of Beef to tease the poor gushing little thing.
“Mister Beef, you shouldn’t flatter me like that. Who would want to marry someone like me?”
“I should have thought you’d have had lots of eligible bachelors after you in a place like Cheltenham. There must be plenty of nice comfortable parties who’d need a wife like you to look after them.”
“I wouldn’t say I haven’t had offers, you know, Mr. Beef, but I could only marry someone I really loved.” She sat back with closed rapt eyes, a flush still in her cheeks. “Someone young and strong. Someone who would tear me away from this comfortable life. Someone who would look after me. But there I go. Forgive me, Mister Beef, we artists, you know, we have our dreams.”
I found all this very painful, but Beef showed no sign of irritation. I was glad, however, when he brought Miss Pinkerton back to the object of our visit and enquired about Roger Howard, her Uncle Edwin Ridley’s stepson.
“I’ve not heard of Roger since the war finished,” she said. “He did very well in the army, and I believe he’s still in it. I could get his address for you from his mother’s family. I still hear occasionally from them. Dear Roger, such an impetuous boy and, I’m afraid, always in debt. And that wife of his, so extravagant. He was stationed here during the war and I saw them once or twice. I tried to get him to go and see his stepfather, but he never would, after that terrible quarrel they had. And now it’s too late.”
Beef gave Miss Pinkerton his address and asked her to let him know Roger Howard’s whereabouts as soon as she could. She led us out through the little hall. “Such a sad time of year,” she said. “All my poor flowers are nearly finished. But, as the poet says, Mr. Beef, ‘If winter comes, can spring be far behind’.”
“Didn’t ought to, did it?” Beef replied. “Well, thank you, madam. Don’t forget to let me have that address.”
We strolled down the crazy pavement and out through the yellow and blue gate.
“I should have thought it would have been quicker to get Roger Howard’s address through the police,” I said, as we got into the car.
“I have my reasons,” he replied, in what I called to myself his policeman voice.
As we drove back through the September dusk I could not help thinking about Estelle Pinkerton, her fussy little house and arty-crafty garden.
“I wonder what she’ll do, Beef,” I said, voicing my thoughts. “I mean when she gets the money.”
“Get a man, that’s what she’ll try and do. Couldn’t you see? Why, it stands out a mile. She’s just the sort that that chap would go for who drowned his wives in a bath. He’d have had her money in no time, and there are plenty more like him about. I don’t mean to say that they’d all go as far as murder, but they’d have her money before you could say Jack Robinson. All that business of meeting people in trains. Why, she’d fall for any fairly good-looking chap who paid her attention. She’d probably go and stay in some foreign hotel, and the fact that she’d just come into a tidy fortune would soon spread. She could never keep her mouth shut. Clear as day.”
What a difference, I thought, between this gushing, vain, empty-headed little spinster, with her water colours and self-interest, from my aunt, whose only similarity to Miss Pinkerton was that she had never married. I thought of Aunt Aurora, upright, dignified, unselfish and unself-centred, who pretended to no cleverness, but who had by the kindly simplicity of her life left a pattern that could still be seen. If it had been Miss Pinkerton who had been murdered she would have been erased from life, leaving nothing behind; but when Aunt Aurora died, the whole life at Camber Lodge, for us, for her servants, for her friends, had changed, and one realised that it was Aunt Aurora who had unconsciously created that small corner of life.