Neck and Neck
When we arrived at Bampton Court the next morning we found the Police Superintendent talking to a tall thin grey-haired man with a hatchet face.
“Come in, Beef,” the Superintendent said. “This is Mr. Potter, the Oxford bookseller, with whom Edwin Ridley did a lot of business. I found some accounts of his among Ridley’s papers and asked him if he’d kindly come over and have a look at the bundle of books that Lovelace, the secretary, said he’d never seen before. He’s made rather a curious discovery. Perhaps you’d repeat what you were telling me, Mr. Potter. Mr. Beef is looking into Ridley’s death on behalf of the family so he’ll be most interested.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you about those few books that seemed to have recently appeared. They’re just ordinary stuff that Ridley wouldn’t have bothered with. They might have been bought anywhere for a few shillings each. Even if you circulated the antiquarian booksellers, I fear you wouldn’t have any success. Although they’ve got nice old calf jackets, they’re too unimportant to be remembered.” Potter spoke in a quiet, precise voice and gave the impression that he knew what he was talking about.
“No,” he continued, “I can’t help you there, I’m afraid, but I have found something rather interesting. Two at least of Ridley’s real prizes have disappeared and inferior copies have been substituted. Come over here and I’ll show you.”
He led the way to a large glass-fronted bookcase which the Superintendent unlocked.
“Now in this case he used to keep all his real treasures. Books worth up to a thousand pounds or more. He often asked me over to look at some new purchase, and I knew his library fairly well. As you see, he had a cardboard container made for each one with the title on the back.”
He picked out one of these containers.
“I can’t say for certain about the rest, but from what I know of his collection he wouldn’t have bothered to have cases made for some of these, nor would he have kept these later issues in his special bookcase.”
“Looks as if someone, might be himself even, has been taking away the valuable copies and putting these others in their place,” the Superintendent said. “Anyway, it’s been done in two cases. We know that for certain from Mr. Potter. Could you tell us, Mr. Potter, your opinion about this. After all, it was your discovery. Do you think there has been some funny business here?”
“I certainly do, Superintendent,” Potter replied. “Whoever substituted those two copies for the originals knew what he was about. Ridley himself would never have parted with his Gulliver. I should say it happened like this. Someone who knew the collection well decided to do a little skilful robbery. He must have had some knowledge of books. Anyway, he knew why these particular books were valuable. He goes to London and buys those two later issues from Maggs or Quaritch or some other big bookseller. He could get them for under fifty pounds. He chooses them chiefly for their size and binding, as being as nearly identical to the original copy as possible. Take the Gulliver, for instance. It’s an ordinary eighteenth-century calf with red labels. So was the copy I sold Ridley. Mine was a taller copy, if I remember, but you wouldn’t notice that at a casual glance. He’s even transferred the bookplate from the original. I remember this one. A particularly fine one from the Duke of Albany’s library. If I hadn’t happened to have sold him the original first issue, the substitution would never have been noted. You see after all this copy that’s here now is a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels. Quite a nice book, but not to a man like Ridley who had to have the rare first issue. It’s only a small difference in the frontispiece. That portrait in front. The whole library would have been sent up to Sotheby’s, probably, and this copy would be sold as it is. After all it’s not a fake, remember. It’s a real sound first edition. The only thing is that I happened to know that Ridley’s copy was the rare first issue. It was a clever idea as long as Ridley himself never found out, and he wasn’t likely to examine these special ones of his very often. It would only happen if he wanted to show them to a fellow bibliophile.”
A sudden idea had struck me while Potter was talking.
“Wouldn’t the catalogue list that Lovelace kept of the library show the difference?” I asked. “He showed me a few entries when we were here before and they seemed to be very detailed.”
I saw Beef and the Superintendent exchange glances. “ We’ll go into that later,” the Superintendent said.” Well, Mr. Potter, we’re most obliged to you for coming over and giving us the benefit of your knowledge and experience. I don’t know yet whether it has any bearing on Ridley’s murder. After all, he might have done the substitution himself. Wanted to have his cake and eat it. Got the cash for the original copies and still was able to pose as the possessor of them, knowing all the time that his cardboard cases only held inferior copies. We shall probably have to come to you again. In the meantime, the less said the better.”
“I shan’t say anything, of course,” Potter replied. “It’s no business of mine. I’m only sorry that I’ve lost a very good customer. They’re not so easy to find these days. There isn’t the money about. I’ll be glad to help you if you want any more information.”
After Potter had gone, the Superintendent turned to Beef. “Of course, it’s obvious who did the substituting if Ridley himself didn’t. Knowledge, opportunity, everything.”
“Stands out a mile,” Beef agreed, and I must say that I too had thought at once of Lovelace as soon as Potter began to speak of a possible theft. I remembered the suspicious, rather furtive look in those pale-blue eyes.
“I thought it was better not to speak of our suspicious in front of Potter,” the Superintendent went on, “and I could see Beef thought the same, That’s why I didn’t go into your suggestion about the catalogue then, but we’ll have a look now. Perhaps you’d help us there, Mr. Townsend.”
I was pleased at the Superintendent’s words, glad that for once I was able to take a part in one of Beef’s cases. Beef himself did not seem enthusiastic as I began to investigate the cabinet in which he kept a catalogue of the books. It was a simple card index arranged alphabetically under authors’ names, and I soon found the card which showed Swift, Jonathan, as all the cards of the really valuable books were together. There was no mention of it being a rare first issue, but when I checked on one or two of the other books which were kept in the special case, there was a much more detailed description, a little note on the book’s rarity and how and where he had obtained it.
“Whoever took the original must have typed a new card,” the Superintendent said, after examining the entry for a minute or two. “If Lovelace did it, he must have typed the new card after Ridley’s death. Ridley might have seen it, otherwise. What do you think, Beef?”
Beef had wandered away while the Superintendent and I had been looking at the cards.
“I expect he did it all right. I said there was something fishy about him from the start. I’m still more interested in that other parcel of books that Potter turned up his nose at.”
The Superintendent smiled. “Quite,” he said. “But I think we ought to have a word or two with Lovelace. After all, he’s the first person we’ve found who could have done the murder, and seems to have had a motive. I mean, if Ridley had suddenly discovered that Lovelace had been stealing his treasured books, there’d have been hell to pay. I somehow don’t think he’ll take a lot of breaking down.”
But the Superintendent got nowhere with Lovelace, whom he had at once sent for.
“Oh, those old books,” Lovelace said, in a rather impatient tone. “It’s no good you asking me any more about them. I’m sick and tired of them. First editions, first issues, misprints, watermarks, that’s all I’ve had for months. I only typed what Ridley dictated. That’s all my job was. I shouldn’t know any more about them than you do.”
Though the Superintendent persevered, he got no forrader. He hinted at possible theft, emphasised the gravity in a murder case of suppressing evidence, and even voiced a few suggested threats, but Lovelace continued to deny any further knowledge.
“I only know that I checked the valuable books in the special case just as you asked me, Superintendent,” he finished by saying. “According to the cards they were all there. When you start talking about different copies and issues and things—I suppose you got all that from Potter of Oxford— I’m just as much at sea as you are.”
I could see the Superintendent was not satisfied.
“I see in Ridley’s engagement book that a man called Steinberg was due to come and stay for a couple of nights. The day before Steinberg’s visit Ridley gets murdered. Steinberg wouldn’t be that big American book dealer who’s always cropping up in the papers, would he?”
Lovelace this time certainly did seem a bit shaken, but he smiled boldly.
“I expect it was,” he replied. “Nearly all the people who visited here came to see Ridley’s books. After all, as you know, he never had any real friends.”
“Never mind about that,” the Superintendent went on. “If Steinberg had come here, Ridley would have got out his copy of Gulliver’s Travels, wouldn’t he, and there’d have been a nice how-do-you-do. Ridley’s murder happened very providentially for the person who had been monkeying with one or two of the more valuable books, don’t you think, Mr. Lovelace?”
The brittle smile had gone from the Secretary’s face. “I’ve told you all I know,” he said sulkily. “I’d never have come here if I’d known all this was going to happen. Unless you’ve got anything more to ask me, I must go and take some aspirin. You’ve given me quite a headache.”
The Superintendent let him go.
Beef seemed disinclined to discuss this new development with the Superintendent, and said all he wanted was a drink. When I reopened the subject on our way back to the Shaven Crown he was equally unresponsive.
“Even though you can’t appreciate the finer points about Ridley’s books,” I could not help saying, “there was no need to be rude to the poor Superintendent. I thought he showed a lot of intelligence.”
“I dare say,” Beef replied, without bothering to remove his pipe. Billows of smoke were surrounding me as I drove, and I was peeved that Beef showed no appreciation of my help in the matter.
“You’re thinking more about beer than bibliography,” I said testily, slamming on the brakes to avoid a heifer that came suddenly out of a break in the stone wall.
“Careful with the car,” Beef said. “We shall need her this afternoon. Don’t you worry your head about those books. I know pretty well all I want to know about them,” Beef said, in his most infuriatingly self-satisfied manner.
After lunch Beef asked me to drive him to Long Alton, a village some seven or eight miles away. He wanted to call and see Colonel Lethbridge, the Master of the local Hunt. I remembered what Lovelace had said about the M.F.H.’s quarrel with Ridley, how Ridley had claimed for the loss of some chickens and, when his claim was not fully met, Ridley had closed his estate to the local Hunt. Nice old boy, Lovelace had called him, but a bit irascible and eccentric. The publican of the Shaven Crown laughed when we enquired how to find Colonel Lethbridge’s house in Long Alton. “You just ask anyone. They all know him,” he said. “Hope you get back safe,” he added, but he would not explain the joke.
When we came to the village of Long Alton, Beef asked me to stop at the small village post office while he got out to enquire the way.
“First big gates on the left,” Beef said, as he climbed back into the car. He was smiling and seemed pleased with himself. “Another good guess,” was all he would say. When we came to the gates the first thing we saw was a large board on which was printed in large letters. All trespassers will be shot. As I turned the car into the drive another notice caught our eyes, Beware of bloodhounds, and a little further yet another, Danger. Mantraps. A pleasant well-kept Cotswold house soon appeared round a curve of the drive. We went up to the front door and rang. A butler appeared and Beef asked to see Colonel Lethbridge.
“The Colonel never sees anyone unknown to him, I’m afraid. Perhaps if you wrote to him . . .”
Beef took one of his printed cards from his pocket-case and, moistening a pencil with his tongue, wrote a few words.
In a few minutes there were loud sounds of barking and two enormous Harlequin Great Danes bounded through the front door followed by a red-faced figure with a bristly grey moustache, clad in a pair of loud tweed plus-fours. In one hand he brandished a riding crop, in the other he held Beef’s card. “Who the devil is Mr. William Beef, private investigator? Go away, both of you. Get out of my grounds. Can’t you read? Haven’t you seen my notices? I’ll get my gun. The only thing I don’t shoot on sight are foxes, sir. All vermin here shot, human or otherwise . . .”
“Now then, sir,” Beef replied, and I could see the old training as a constable standing him in good stead, “just calm yourself. You won’t do yourself or anyone else any good if you get all worked up like that.”
While Beef was speaking wild noises that sounded like “Bah” came from the Colonel’s throat, but Beef’s policeman-like manner was having its effect.
“I just wanted a word or two with you about that letter you wrote to Ridley three days before he was murdered.”
“So that’s your business,” the Colonel barked. “But who’s this?” he asked, pointing at me with his crop. “One of these blasted reporters? If he is, if he dares to print one word about me, I’ll flog him first and then sue his paper.”
Beef explained, and we were at last silently ushered into a comfortable study where a warm log fire was burning. The walls were hung with every sort of animal trophy. I half expected to see a human head or two among the antlers.
“You may sit down,” conceded the Colonel. He was addressing Beef. “What’s it you want? Are you from the police, or what?”
The bluster was still there, but a little of the confidence seemed to be shaken by Beef’s stolid manner.
Beef explained that he was acting for Ridley’s relations.
“Mean little paper merchant,” the Colonel snapped.
“That may be so, sir,” Beef went on evenly. “But why did you send Ridley that threatening card?”
I thought the Colonel was really going to explode this time.
“What are you talking about, threatening card?” he shouted.
Beef produced the piece of paper which the Superintendent had found in Ridley’s pocket and read out the puerile threat.
“This is dated three days before Ridley was murdered,” Beef went on imperturbably. “I want to know why you sent it.”
I thought at first we should have another wild outburst, but I was surprised, as I watched his face, to see a sudden rather guilty smile appear.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked.
“I thought when I first saw it it might have come from you,” Beef replied. “They’d told me about the row you’d had with Ridley, you see, and this card sounded very much of a piece. Just to make sure I showed the blank part of the paper to the local postmistress. She recognised your brand of note-paper at once. Then when I saw your notices, I could see with half an eye it had the same literary style.”
The Colonel seemed delighted with this piece of elementary detection of Beef’s. “We must have a drink on this,” he said, and poured out enormous pegs of whisky into three beautiful heavy cut-glass tumblers.
“I’ve been worried about that foolish card,” the Colonel began as he sat down. “Ever since I heard of Ridley’s death, I could have kicked myself for such a silly prank. I only sent it as a joke to frighten the little rat. The police don’t know I sent it, do they?”
“Not yet,” said Beef, emptying his glass and pushing it forward in a marked manner.
“I’d scarcely be able to show my face on the Bench if the story got round. Not because I told him what I thought of him but because I made it anonymous. Can’t think what can have possessed me. I ought to have thrashed the little bounder, not written to him.”
“And you see how awkward it would be,” Beef replied, “if they started connecting you and your threats with Ridley’s death. However, as far as I’m concerned you needn’t worry. The police won’t hear anything of this from me. To be quite frank with you, sir, it’s not your sort of crime. You might strangle a man in a fit of temper. You might even choke yourself. But everything points to this murder being planned beforehand. I can’t see you prowling round Ridley’s house in the dark.”
“Thank you,” the Colonel said, and wisely left it at that. “Now is there anything I can do for you?”
Beef questioned him closely about the various other rows that Ridley had had. The Colonel seemed to know the details of them all, the quarrel about the cricket pitch, the two brothers whom Ridley had prosecuted for poaching and who had in fact appeared when he was on the Bench (“Should have liked to have let the fellows off, but I couldn’t"), the trouble with the doctor, and the case of the cottages from which he was trying to evict two families. He even told us of a few more. “I know all these people,” he said. “I’ve lived among them all my life. None of them would dream of that kind of violence, however ill-used they may have felt. I can assure you of that.”
Beef finished his drink and rose to go.
“A little more progress,” he said to me, as we drove back to Cold Slaughter. “I reckon it won’t be long before I have got this all straightened out.”
“What about my aunt’s murderer, Beef?” I asked. “That’s what’s worrying me. All this rushing round Gloucestershire may be necessary, but it doesn’t help Vincent or myself.”
“You’ll be surprised when it all comes out in the end,” Beef answered. “It won’t take long now.”