Neck and Neck, Chapter Twenty

Neck and Neck

CHAPTER TWENTY
   
The next morning Beef left me to clear up the breakfast—we had raided Miss Pinker ton’s larder—while he went into the town.  He had some enquiries to make, but I noticed that he had a good look at the garden in daylight before he left.
“Looking for traces of newly disturbed earth,” I said, laughing at him, as he pounded round the minute lawn and flowerbeds.
It was nearly ten before Beef returned, and I could tell by his brisk walk as he strode in that he had been successful.
“Quick,” he began breathlessly, “we’re off back to Sussex as fast as that car of yours can go.  I’ll tell you more as we go along.  You put our stuff in the car while I just have a word with Mrs. Fordyce.  I don’t want her gossiping round the place at this time.  It might ruin everything.”
It was a perfect day for a drive, I thought, as I got the car ready.  There had been a mist early in the morning but now pale September sunlight was streaming down from a cloudless sky.  I could feel a pleasant autumn nip in the air as I carried our bags and put them in the back.  Down the road came scurrying noisily a wave of dry brown leaves, caught in a sudden gust, and I realised that autumn was fully upon us.
When Beef joined me, I lost no time in getting out of Cheltenham.  As soon as we were clear of the town, Beef told me what he had discovered that morning.  With the aid of the local police, which he had managed to enlist after a call had been put through to the Superintendent in charge of the Cotswold murder case, as it was called, he had traced the long-distance call that Estelle Pinkerton had made on the Sunday.  It was to an hotel in Eastbourne.  Fortunately Mrs. Fordyce had overheard the name of Mrs. White, to whom Miss Pinkerton had been phoning.  Beef at once got through to the hotel and found there was a Mrs. White staying there.
“When at last they got this Mrs. White to the phone I had a devil of a job.  To begin with she said she’d never heard of anyone called Pinkerton and she had not had any dealings with anyone at Cheltenham for many years.  I was afraid she would ring off.  I asked her if she’d let her house to the lady who’d phoned on Sunday afternoon.  ‘Oh, you mean Mrs. Welldon.  Yes, I’m afraid it’s gone.  Mrs. Welldon, a charming old lady, called yesterday for the keys and settled everything.  Only it’s not a house, you know.  It’s only a bungalow.  I said so in the advertisement.’  After that it was easy.  I soon got the name and address of the bungalow.  It was clear that our friend Estelle Pinkerton was calling herself Mrs. Welldon.  I’ve got the address here in my notebook.  Chalk Cottage, Downland, Sussex.  Do you know this place, Downland?”
“Gracious, yes,” I replied with a smile.  “It’s only a small village.  Quite near Hastings.”
With the very mention of the village of Downland, I was back nearly twenty years.  I could almost smell the yellow gorse and hear again the plaintive cry of the seagulls as they wheeled around those high white cliffs.  How often had Vincent and I set out from Aunt Aurora’s house, our lunch and bathing costumes tied to our saddles, and cycled over the hills till we came to that remote gap where then a few coastguard cottages were the only sign of human life?  I could still see the wreck of a small coaster that for years rusted away against the cliffs.  What dreams we had had about her in those far-off sunlit days.  It was under those very cliffs, I remembered, that at the age of twelve I had smoked my first cigarette.
“We’d better stop for a bite of lunch soon,” Beef said, abruptly interrupting my thoughts of the past.  “We’ll be in Lewes in a few minutes.”
I had kept the needle of the speedometer well up as we had sped across southern England.  Through Lechlade and Faringdon, past Wantage and along by the Thames to Pangbourne and Reading we had come without a pause.  Guildford and Horsham were now behind us.  I, too, was ready to stop for a drink and a sandwich.  Neither of us, I could tell, were in any mood to linger long.  Beef appeared restless and anxious, and was also feeling an excited curiosity about what would come at the end of this long quest.
At last we turned down the narrow lane that led to the village of Downland, and I was agreeably surprised to find that the place had not changed as much as I had feared.  It was, of course, late in the year, but although a number of new buildings had sprung up since I was here, the village still preserved its air of lonely isolation.
“Miss Pinkerton told Mrs. White that her doctor had ordered her a month’s complete rest away from everyone.  It looks as if she’d get it here,” Beef said, as he looked down the deserted street.
There was the usual village shop that appeared to sell everything, and Beef led the way towards it.
“We’ll find out where Chalk Cottage is, anyhow,” he said.  “I bet it’s the centre of village gossip here.  We may hear something.”
A middle-aged woman was alone behind the counter, and when we enquired for Chalk Cottage she came to the shop door and pointed out a small white bungalow some quarter of a mile away up the downs.
“That’s Chalk Cottage,” she said, seeming eager to chatter.  “A lady and gentleman came there yesterday.  You’d be friends of theirs, I dare say.”
Beef agreed that we were on our way to visit them, and took some time over the purchase of two ounces of tobacco.
“Been empty long?” he asked.
“Ever since the end of August,” she replied.  “I was quite surprised when I saw the taxi go up yesterday afternoon.  I mean, it’s not the time of year you expect visitors, is it?”
Beef muttered some reply and then asked her if she had seen the newcomers yet.
“No, not yet,” she replied.  “I haven’t seen them about today at all, though it’s been a lovely day.  They’ll have to come here sometime, though, unless they want to take a bus to Hastings for every little thing.”
We walked out and began to drive up the hill towards Chalk Cottage.  We had only gone a hundred yards or so when the track ended and there was only a footpath with the sign “Chalk Cottage” on the gate.  Leaving the car we climbed on up through the small garden that surrounded the bungalow.
There was no sign of life as we approached, and I began to fear we were going to find another empty house.  Beef rang the bell and knocked loudly on the front door, but there was no answer.  There was no need this time to climb in through a window, as the front door proved to be unlocked.  We passed through the tiny entrance into a living-room, but here there was no sign that anyone had recently been in occupation.  Beyond lay a kitchen which looked equally deserted.
“The bedrooms must be the other side of the hall,” Beef said.  “There are none here.”
“This must be the way to them,” I said, as I pushed open a door on the further side of the hall.
I walked in and then suddenly stopped.  A large double bed filled most of the room and in the centre was a strange swelling.  Something or somebody was in that bed.  I could not move.  Beef, by this time, had also entered the room.
He stood looking down at the bed for a moment and then bent down and slowly pulled back the bedclothes.
There, clad only in pyjamas, lay the body of Hilton Gupp.
Beef leaned forward and put out his hand.  “Cold as mutton,” he said.  He made a quick examination of the body and then covered the unpleasant sight up again.
“Must have been poisoned,” he said.  “There are no marks on the body that I can find.  And a chap like Gupp doesn’t just die.  Not at a time like this.”
I was glad when Beef left the bedroom and closed and locked the door, putting the key in his pocket.  He returned to the sitting-room, sat down and began to fill his pipe.
“Beef,” I said irritably, “surely there are a hundred things we ought to be doing.  What about informing the police and getting a doctor?”
He lit a match and puffed slowly at his pipe.  Then he began to examine a small green booklet.  “Local bus timetable this,” he said.  “It had fallen down beside the bed.
“Is there a railway station anywhere near?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.  “Hastings would be the nearest.  And you won’t find there are many buses either.”
Beef began turning over the leaves of the book.
“ Ah, here we are,” he said.” Downland.  Good gracious, there’s no bus in the morning from here until eleven-ten.  She couldn’t have walked because of her suitcase.  Besides, there was no reason to.  She couldn’t have known we were coming here.”
“Miss Pinkerton?” I asked.
Beef nodded.
“I see there’s a bus that goes through to Seahaven.  That’s where the channel boats sail from.  Yes, and by Jove there’s a pencil mark against it.  I wonder if we’re going to be lucky.  Do you remember how she talked about her French grandfather when she was shewing you those sketches of Brittany?  France, that’s where she’s gone, I’ll bet.  As far as she knows there’s nothing in the world to connect Mrs. Welldon, the lady who took this bungalow, with Estelle Pinkerton of Cheltenham.  All she had to do, she thought, was to stay away for a bit and come back and enjoy her money.  It’s a good chance she’s gone abroad.  Sort of thing she’d have read about.  But we’ll find her, wherever she’s gone.” He rose briskly and led the way down the hill from Chalk Cottage towards the village of Downland.
“First I’m going to phone Inspector Arnold at Hastings.  He’ll be able to check up on the cross-channel boats.  If there’s a village policeman we’d better get him to guard Chalk Cottage, but Arnold can look after the rest—doctors and so on.  If she hasn’t tried to slip across the channel, it may take a little time to find her.”
There was a telephone booth in the village street which Beef at once entered.  He was some time, but at last came out looking pleased with himself.
“I managed to get hold of Arnold himself, fortunately.  He’s got a description of Estelle Pinkerton and is putting it out everywhere.  I told him I thought she couldn’t have left this place till the eleven-ten bus.  We know they didn’t arrive till late yesterday afternoon and there was no bus out of here after that.  We should have heard, I think, if there’d been a car around here last night.  Anyway, she wouldn’t want to draw attention to herself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t put the poison in his early-morning cup of tea.  That would give her plenty of time to clear the place up and get away by that bus.  Arnold looked up the boats from Seahaven when I suggested that, and he found there’s one this evening at six o’clock.  The one before that sailed at ten this morning, so I don’t think she can have caught it.  I told him that I’d meet him at Seahaven police station.  We’ll just see the local bobby.  Arnold will do the rest.”
The local police constable, whom we found in his cottage, had already had a call from Hastings, and was preparing to go up and guard Chalk Cottage until the police doctor arrived.  There was nothing else for us to do in Downland and we were just preparing to drive off when the old woman came out of the village shop.
“You missed the lady at Chalk Cottage, then?” she said.  “I’ve just heard she was seen getting on the Hastings bus this morning at eleven, but I expect she’ll be back on the four o’clock.  That’s the last.  They all come back on that when they’ve been to Hastings from here.  If she’d got on at this stop I’d have seen her myself, but she walked along to Bylands Corner.  Nearly a mile.  Dragging two suitcases, too.”
We were in the car by this time, and, waving good-bye, we made our escape.
When we got to Seahaven police station Beef went in to find Inspector Arnold, but it was nearly twenty minutes later before he reappeared with the Inspector.
“No reports have come in about her yet,” Beef said to me, as they climbed into the car.  “But we’re going to watch the passengers on to the Seahaven boat.”
“It seems quite a likely chance,” the Inspector added, after greeting me.  “That marked bus time-table and her French grandfather.  All the other stations have been warned, so there’s nothing else we can do for the moment.”
“I’ve got a man watching everyone going on.  There’s a little spot just before they come to the customs.  A disused office with glass windows.  Everyone has to pass it.  We often use it in cases like this.”
The road came to an abrupt end at a stone wall and the Inspector jumped out and unlocked a door which led to the outer harbour.  Just before the customs shed, he stopped.
“Here we are,” he said, opening the door of one of the station offices.  “Any luck yet?” he said to a man who was standing at the window.
“A few have gone through,” the plain-clothes policeman replied, “but no one answering the description you gave me.  A family, father, mother and two young girls.  That couldn’t have been her.  An old woman about seventy, two or three business men, and a party of three clergymen.”
“Well, it’s early yet,” the Inspector said, and we settled down to wait.  As each passenger approached Beef and I looked eagerly for any sign of Estelle Pinkerton, but no one even remotely resembling her came by.  I could see Beef was getting restless.  He kept looking at his watch and then eagerly down the platform.
“She’ll have to hurry if she’s going to catch it now,” the Inspector was saying, when Beef suddenly jumped up.
“Inspector, you must get me on that boat,” he said excitedly, taking Arnold by the arm and dragging him out of the office.  “I’m sure I’m not wrong.  She’s on there all right.  Remember what Mrs. White said,” he went on, turning to me as we hurried forward.  “ ‘A charming old lady.’  I thought it was funny at the time, talking of a woman not forty.  ’Course she was dressed up as an old woman.  She’s the old lady your chap saw go by.  Naturally he wouldn’t think of her.  She told us she went in for amateur dramatics.”
Inspector Arnold was, it seemed, well known to the officials at Seahaven and we were soon all three aboard in the purser’s office.
“No,” he said, in reply to Beef’s eager query.  “We haven’t any old lady aboard this time, thank heavens.  Not one.  Have a look if you like, but I watched them all come aboard.”
Beef thought for a moment, and then produced a photograph.  “Seen anyone like her?” he asked anxiously.  “Oh yes,” the purser replied, putting down the photograph, which I recognised as one of Estelle Pinkerton that I had last seen in Fairy Glen.  “She’s taken a cabin.  No. 34.  I’ll shew you where it is.”
Beef and the Inspector jumped up and led the way, and after knocking opened the door of cabin 34.
I never want to see again the expression I saw on Estelle Pinkerton’s face as she recognised Beef.  Fury.  Fear.  Frustration.  A suffusion of blood and then a deathly pallor.  At first she hardly seemed to hear when the Inspector said that he wished to question her, and asked her to accompany him off the boat.  When he mentioned the name of Hilton Gupp, she swayed and I thought she would fall, but she allowed herself to be led down the gangway and into the police car that Inspector Arnold had ordered.
As we came towards my car a plain-clothes policeman came forward with a bundle in his arms.
“These have just been found in the ladies’ cloak-room,” he said, displaying a black bonnet and coat and a wig of silver hair.
“She had to be herself to pass the customs,” Beef said.  “Her passport and everything.  I’d forgotten that.  Besides, her whole plan depended on her going aboard as Miss Pinkerton, taking an ordinary holiday.”
“It very nearly came off.  If it hadn’t been for you, Beef, she’d have been on her way by now,” the Inspector added generously.  “All I hope is that you’ve got all the proof you say you have.  To look at her you wouldn’t think she’d hurt a fly, would you?  You can never tell with poisoners.  I shouldn’t have thought she’d had it in her to do one murder, let alone two.”
“Two?” I asked.
“So Beef tells me,” the Inspector replied.
Beef nodded.