Neck and Neck
It was nine o’clock when we reached Hastings and as it was rather late to ask for a meal either at Camber Lodge or at the pub in which Beef was staying we went into a restaurant. We had not had much to eat all day and we were both hungry, so little was said till we had eaten. As we lit up pipe and cigarette afterwards, Beef began to talk reflectively.
“I’ve just one or two things to clear up here tomorrow,” he said, “and then I’m off back to my other case in the Cotswolds. You’d better come along. Give you a much better story to write up than this one. Real nasty atmosphere down there.”
“I’ve been away a long time already,” I protested. “I’m not at all anxious to interest myself in another case before you have solved this one. After all, this has a personal urgency. It was my aunt who was murdered and my brother and I who may be suspected by the police.”
“I’ll come back to this,” said Beef. “But in the other case the scent will be getting cold unless I go ahead at once. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be left for a few days. We’ve done all the immediate things.”
I did not like to confess what was in my mind.
“Well, I had thought there might be a novel in this case,” I said at last. “And the fact that it was my aunt would give it a more personal and interesting appeal.”
“So there ought to be in the other case,” said Beef sulkily.
“Two novels?” I exclaimed.
“Well, perhaps you could make one book of the two of them,” suggested Beef. “Suppose we was to let them run neck and neck? Do a little bit of this one, then a little bit of that, I mean. How would that be?”
“It wouldn’t do at all. People don’t want to be jerked away from one case to start all over again in another. That’s why books of short stories are never successful.”
“Don’t you be too sure,” said Beef. “If I was reading I should like a bit of contrast. Anyone could have too much of your aunt’s case—dear old lady though she may have been. This other chap who’s got himself murdered is a very different kettle of fish. You have a try at making one book of the two. I think it would turn out all right.”
“If you’re determined to take up the Cotswold case again I suppose there is nothing for me to do but come with you. But I shall have to look in at my flat on the way and pick up a suitcase.”
“That will suit me nicely,” said Beef, with enthusiasm. “I’d like to look in and see my old woman, too. It’s just as quick to motor through London, in fact quicker by the time you’ve mucked around side roads.”
“I can see it’s the car you really want, Beef,” I said, laughing.
“Well, in this case it would come in very handy. The place where the murder was done is miles from anywhere. Nearest pub is seven miles. That shows you, doesn’t it?”
“What’s the case all about, Beef,” I asked, “and how did you come into it?”
“It’s a funny case,” he said ruminatively, sending up enormous waves of smoke from his pipe. “A wealthy old chap was found hanging from a beam in his house. At first it was thought to be suicide. That’s how I came to be called in, see? His brother is a clergyman with a large family. The old boy who’s dead was a widower. Though he hadn’t left his brother the money, which all goes to a niece, he’d taken out a huge insurance of about thirty thousand pounds, and that went to his clergyman brother in trust for his children. But of course the clergyman realised quick when he heard that his brother had been found hanging that if it was suicide he wouldn’t get a penny from the insurance. So he comes along to me the very same day as he heard—that was the day after the murder—and employs me to find out if there’s any chance of foul play, as they say. There’s a bit more to it than that. The clergyman knew that his brother was hated by pretty well everyone and that more than once he’d been threatened with violence.”
“And was it murder?” I asked.
“Oh yes, clear as daylight, but that’s about all that is clear, same as in your aunt’s case. You see, it looks like money again being the motive, though there’s other motives too in this case. He was a nasty, mean, miserly old man and a lot of people would like to have bumped him off, whereas I can’t think of anyone wanting to do in your aunt. As nice an old lady as you could meet, I’m sure. You can see that from the house and the servants. You wait till you see this barn of a place in the Cotswolds. Gives you a nasty turn every time you look round. Well, you’ll soon be seeing it for yourself. You ought to be able to make something up about the atmosphere of a place like that.”
The first surprise I had the next morning was to find no Edith Payne and only one place laid.
“Miss Edith went off to London as soon as you’d gone yesterday,” Ellen told me. “She’s only taken a suitcase and says she’ll be back in a few days, Mr. Lionel,” Ellen went on, becoming almost human as excitement crept into her voice. “You know how she’s been since your aunt died? Like a death’s head you might say. Well, yesterday she calls me up to her room and there she was packing. She looked ten years younger, her face all flushed and that excited I didn’t know what to make of it. ’I’m going to London today,’ she says. ‘I’ll be back in a few days and I’ll have a great big surprise for you’.”
“Was there a letter for me from my brother?” I asked casually.
“No, sir,” Ellen replied. “But there’s been one the last two mornings from him for Miss Edith. She’ll show you them, I dare say, when she gets back.”
I was a bit worried about this news. Was it possible that Vincent and Edith had cleared out? I turned to the paper and finished my breakfast. It was no use worrying until I had more facts. I was just going out to smoke in the garden when Ellen reappeared and I could tell by her manner that she had more to tell me.
“Have you heard about the vicar, sir?” she asked. “Terrible it is. I don’t know what Miss Fielding would have said if she’d been alive. Perhaps it’s as well she’s spared it.”
“What is all this about the vicar, Ellen?” I asked rather impatiently.
“Gone right off his head. Loopy, sir, they say. He was taking a christening yesterday afternoon when he was suddenly took queer. Nearly drowned the poor little thing, so I hear. Overwork, they say. It’s all that restoration he’s having done. Been working day and night and practically not a bite to eat, so his housekeeper tells me. They’ve taken him to a private mental home.”
I could stand no more shocks just after breakfast and went out into the garden to wait for Beef, who said he would be up about half-past ten. Before I went out I had told Ellen I was leaving and asked her to pack my things.
When Beef arrived, I told him first about the vicar, but he didn’t make any comment. Then I gave him Ellen’s story of Edith Payne going to London.
“She’s gone to meet my brother Vincent, I’m sure. You don’t think they are doing a bunk, Beef?” I asked anxiously feeling almost a traitor to my brother in suggesting it.
“More like wedding bells, I should say,” Beef replied.
“I hope so,” I said, though I didn’t fancy Edith as a sister-in-law. At that moment Ellen came out with a silver tray i n her hand. It was a telegram from Vincent.
“Married to Edith by special licence today. Love from us both, Vincent,” I read, and showed it to Beef.
“I wasn’t far out, was I?” was all he said. “It’s time we had a talk with the police.”
Inspector Arnold greeted Beef and myself in his usual impersonal way.
“I’m afraid I haven’t had any luck with that receipt form you left with me,” he said to Beef. “None of the local people know anything about the Church Missions Society, but I’ve sent it up to the Yard. They’ll be able to give us an answer, but I don’t think I shall worry very much about it.”
Beef mentioned that we had seen Gupp yesterday, but again he showed little interest. “There’s no breaking his alibi. We’ve tried everything,” was his only comment.
“Well, I’m off back to that case in the Cotswolds,” Beef told him.
“Oh, you’re interested in that fellow who was found strangled and then hung up on a rope, are you?” Arnold commented. “Looks interesting.”
When Beef told the Inspector that I was going with him, he made no remark. My brother Vincent’s name came up, just as we were leaving, and I mentioned that he was being married that very morning.
“Yes, we know all about that,” Arnold said, rather grimly, I thought.
“I expect he found running a House at Penshurst all by himself rather too much. All the housekeeping, you know,” I said to the Inspector.
“Possibly,” he said. “There’s also a very convenient law that a wife can’t give evidence against a husband, and vice versa. Good day.”
I was a good deal worried by the Inspector’s remark. After a while I could not help asking Beef if he really thought that the Inspector suspected my brother and Edith, but got little comfort from him.
“Well, you’re all bound to be under suspicion till it’s cleared up,” he said. “There are not many flies on Inspector Arnold. Very little goes on that he doesn’t know about.”
We collected Beef’s things from the pub where he had been staying and drove to Camber Lodge.
“It will feel strange,” Mary said, when I went to say goodbye. “Nobody in the house, not even Miss Edith. I don’t know what we shall do with ourselves.”
“Oh, we’ll all be back soon for one of your real dinners, Mary,” I answered.
Charlie had put my bag in the car and we set off for London.
We stopped for the usual ill-cooked meal that hotels on main roads still serve as lunch and arrived at my flat about tea-time. Beef had never seen the small flat near Marble Arch where I lived, so I asked him in.
“So this is where you write up my cases, is it?” he said, looking around. “Very comfortable, too. Be able to afford something a bit bigger if this case turns out all right,” he added.
There had been no further police activity concerning me as far as I could gather, and after putting together some clean underclothing, a tweed suit, and, on Beef’s advice, my thickest overcoat (“The nearest village is called Cold Slaughter,” Beef explained, “and when the weather’s nasty I should think it could be about the coldest and bleakest place in England”), we drove to the drab little house that Beef had taken when he first set up as a private detective. It was as near Baker Street as he had been able to manage. Mrs. Beef, a kindly country-woman whom Beef had married in his early days as a constable in a small village, gave us tea. She obviously thought the world of her husband and sent him off with solicitous instructions about looking after himself.
I took the High Wycombe road, followed the bypass leaving Oxford, a crown of spires in the gathering dusk, passed through Witney, caught a passing glimpse of the beauty of Minster Lovel and Burford, and then, leaving Oxfordshire as evening was beginning to close in, entered the long high bleak stretch of road that leads into Gloucestershire.