Neck and Neck
Ellen brought me Hilton Gupp’s telegram as I was walking in the garden. “Townsend, Camber Lodge, Highview Road, Hastings,” it ran. “Corning down for inquest. Should like to spend week-end Camber Lodge. Shall arrive Saturday evening. Please wire that this is convenient and that Vincent will be there. Hilton. East Indian Club.” As the boy was waiting, I sent the necessary reply. After all, I could not refuse my cousin a room here, however much he had offended Aunt Aurora. As I read it through again I began to wonder why Hilton wanted to see my brother, especially after his last words when the will had been read. Since that scene I had never really had time to think about Hilton and why Aunt Aurora had cut him out of her Will. Had Vincent known about this, I wondered, before my aunt’s death? He had appeared as surprised as I was.
The sight of Beef’s bowler hat over the hedge of the drive put a stop to these unpleasant thoughts. “Beef,” I shouted, “I have something I think you’d like to see,” for although I was still annoyed with him after our last conversation, I felt he ought to know of Gupp’s intended arrival.
“I wonder what he’s after,” he said, when he had read the telegram. “Anyhow, it suits my book. I’ve got to go to London tonight on my other case, but I’ll be back Sunday before dinner. Keep him around till I have a word with him.”
Assuming that Beef meant that he would be back Sunday morning, I began to think it would be a good idea if I went up to town for a night. Among other reasons I had only brought a small case and needed some clean clothes, and I was glad of an excuse to be free for a night in town. Beef wanted a lift, and after lunch we set off. I dropped him near Trafalgar Square, where he said he had a call to make, and drove straight to my flat.
I lived in a small service flat near Marble Arch. I had found, since I had become the chronicler of Beef’s cases, that my life was a pleasantly busy one. I was either following him around while he did his investigations—and this I admit was the part I preferred—or sitting down in the flat recording what I had seen. However, these periods of writing were often interrupted by a surprise ring on the telephone, and I would hear Beef’s voice booming down the earpiece: “Got something that might interest you. Nice little bit of black,” he would say. “Meet me in the —(and he would name some pub or other) at six o’clock,” and I would happily put together what I had written that day, jump in my car, and set out to see what this new story, on this occasion blackmail, would turn out to be.
Much as I missed Aunt Aurora and felt how sad it was that never again would Vincent and I be able to invite ourselves down to Camber Lodge and enjoy her kindly hospitality in that comfortable house, I could not help thinking as I entered through the swing-doors of the large block in which my flat was, how different my life could be when her estate was settled up.
I had not been in the flat many minutes, when there was a ring at the bell. When I opened the door I found George, one of the porters who kept an eye on the flat when I was not there. “Come in, George,” I said. “I’m only here till tomorrow.” He shuffled awkwardly and I was afraid he was going to offer condolences on my aunt’s death, until I remembered that there was nothing yet as far as the public were concerned to connect the name Fielding with that of Townsend.
“It’s not that, sir,” he began. “I don’t hardly know what to say, but you’ve always treated me well, so I thought I ought to tip you off. It’s the police. Plain-clothes C.I.D. They were here quite a time yesterday, asking all sorts of questions about you.”
“Really,” I replied, trying to reply with an ease which I did not feel. “I expect they are checking up on my car or something.”
“Oh no, sir,” George went on, and I could see that now he had broached the subject he was beginning to enjoy the situation. “They questioned all the porters. Asking them when you came in and went out. They seemed especially interested in last Saturday. You were out all day, I remember. Wanted to know if you owed money round here. Asked all sorts of questions, they did. ’Course we haven’t said a word, but I thought you ought to know.”
“Thanks, George. I’ll have to look into this,” I said, handing over the expected note and dismissing him. After I had washed I walked round to the garage where I kept my car, and by a few enquiries discovered that similar questions had been asked there. It was easy enough to see what line Inspector Arnold’s investigation was taking, and I wondered if the same check-up was being made on Vincent. He was calling in the morning and I was driving him down to Hastings, so I thought I would forget for one night Aunt Aurora’s death. I put a toll call through and then booked a table for two at Marinetti’s.
Vincent did not seem at all worried when I told him about the police making enquiries about me at the flat, and I began to feel ashamed at even having the smallest suspicion about him. We were just entering Tunbridge Wells when I told him this, for the first part of the journey had been occupied with a detailed account of his new House at Penshurst School and all that he planned to do when he received his share of Aunt Aurora’s money. On the contrary, he seemed pleased at my discomfiture, so I changed the subject and showed him Hilton Gupp’s telegram.
“Slight change of front since he went off in a huff after the funeral,” was his only comment.
“Beef still wants to question him,” I went on, “but I don’t see how he can have anything to do with Aunt Aurora’s death. His alibi, the Inspector says, is cast-iron, and the doctors agree that the poison must have been taken that morning. It’s not like one of those cases where the pill is put in the middle of the bottle and the murderer is miles away when the poison is actually taken.”
“You know my view, Lionel,” Vincent answered, as he lighted his pipe. “I still think the whole thing was some ghastly mistake. Some drugs or something got mixed up. I hope the police will drop the affair.”
“What about Beef?” I asked. “He won’t be satisfied till he gets at the truth. Don’t you want it all cleared up? I mean, it puts us in a most invidious position. There’ll be detectives ferreting round your House at Penshurst next.”
“Yes, there’s that,” Vincent replied thoughtfully, and lapsed into silence until we reached Camber Lodge.
Edith Payne joined us for lunch, and I was astonished at the change which had come over her. Gone was all that bright and chirpy manner that had always irritated me, so far vanished that, I must confess, I could not help feeling sorry for her. Her complexion, which normally was positively ruddy and shining as if she had just washed with carbolic soap, looked splotchy, and her eyes behind the thick lenses seemed suspicious and furtive. She used in the old days to welcome us heartily when we came into the house, as if we were her brothers, and, although I knew she disliked me intensely, she tried to behave in the same way to both of us.
She hardly said a word during lunch, but as soon as Vincent had gone out of the room, saying he had some papers of Aunt Aurora’s to look through, she began to talk to me.
“Lionel,” she said, “that Inspector was up here again this morning looking round, asking me questions. I’m so glad you and Vincent are back. What do you think the police are looking for? I feel frightened every time they come.”
“Oh,” I replied, trying to reassure her, “it’s only routine. After all, Aunt Aurora was poisoned. They’ve got to do their duty. We’ve got nothing to hide, have we?”
“No, of course not,” she answered quickly. She was just leaving the room when she turned back. “Lionel, you remember I asked you for some money for housekeeping and you gave me four pounds? Here it is back. A most extraordinary thing has happened. I still can’t understand it. I’m sure there was no money in Aunt Aurora’s bag when I looked the day after her death, but yesterday when I was collecting all her personal things I opened the bag again and there were twenty one-pound notes.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “How odd. You must have overlooked them, but I’ll tell the Inspector. Vincent will let you have any money you want until things are settled.”
I went out into the garden wondering at yet another strange occurrence in this house. It had been for me one of the charms of the place that nothing ever used to occur to spoil the peaceful orderly routine of life at Camber Lodge, and I still believed that Inspector Arnold would ultimately come to the conclusion that my aunt’s death, even if due to poison, was not contrived purposely by anybody.
I found young Charlie in the garden, clearing a bed of dead flowers. He looked up cheerfully as I approached. Whatever trouble had been worrying him seemed to have disappeared. Knowing how much he disliked gardening I suggested he might like to clean my car. “You might check the tyres, too,” I added. “I don’t suppose my garage people have looked at the oil in the gearbox and back axle for some time.”
“Rather, Mr. Lionel,” he cried, throwing down the spade and preparing to leave his work.
“You must finish that bed first,” I said, “or I’ll get into trouble with the gardener.”
“Oh, very well,” he answered resignedly. “I’d better do a proper job on your car, when I start. What about a decoke?” he asked.
“You’d better leave that for a day or two, Charlie,” I answered. “I may need the car in a hurry. But you’ve got enough to keep you from gardening for a little while. Oh yes, and by the way, I want you to meet Mr. Gupp, who’s arriving on the six ten.”
By the expressive noise he made as he started to dig again I gathered that Hilton Gupp was not one of his favourites. Hilton Gupp arrived in time for dinner. Mary, the cook, surpassed herself that evening and, accustomed as I was to good food at Camber Lodge, I could not help feeling that for Mary, too, like her son Charlie, her cares had vanished. Our cousin Hilton ate as usual with gusto, and I found myself contrasting him with Edith, who hardly ate anything and did not appear to notice what was on her plate. She left us three together as soon as she could, and I produced some brandy which I had found that afternoon in Aunt Aurora’s cellar. Someone, our grandfather probably, had laid down a nice little collection sometime, and, though much of the wine would have gone off, there were bins of port, brandy, and rum, that promised well.
Hilton did not keep us waiting long before revealing the object of his visit.
“Look here, Vincent,” he said, putting down his glass. “I know I was rather hasty last time you saw me, but you must realise my feelings. I’ve been living for years, slaving away at the bank, on the assumption that one day I’d have enough money to be free. I wonder how you’d have felt if Aunt Aurora had cut you out completely?”
Vincent paused for a second and poured himself out another glass of brandy.
“I don’t know, Hilton,” he said, looking steadily at our cousin. “I think it would rather depend on why I was cut out.”
I felt that Hilton knew this question must come and had prepared for it for his next speech came so pat. “I tried to touch the old girl for a loan,” he said. “Nothing very much. A few hundred. Told her it would save death duties. I never thought she would take it like that, though she did seem a bit cold. I cleared off next morning and she never even came down to say good-bye. But I needed the money badly, and I need it now. That’s what I came down tonight for. I don’t want to make any trouble or contest the Will—though I know you, Vincent, were down here the whole week before she died. It wouldn’t sound very well in court. You two must know the whole thing’s unfair.” He looked round at both of us and puffed for a moment at his cigar.
“Tell you what,” he began again. “This is what I propose and what I think would be best for all concerned. You give me five thousand out of your two shares and I’ll not cause any trouble.”
I had never seen Vincent look so angry. “What the hell do you mean ’cause any trouble’? Are you trying to threaten us?”
Hilton smiled. “Oh no. I just thought there were things best left unsaid. If I fought the Will, it wouldn’t look good for you, would it, with the problem of Aunt Aurora’s death still unsolved? However, we cousins mustn’t quarrel. I’ll give you a few days to think about the five thousand, but, Vincent, I must have two hundred pounds right away. You can easily manage that.”
“What for?” Vincent asked.
“That’s my business, but I think you’d find it advisable to give me a cheque before I go back to town or you may have another family scandal in the papers.”
“Hilton,” Vincent said in a cold even tone, “you’d better get this quite clear. I don’t care what trouble you try to create. You won’t get a penny from me until Aunt Aurora’s death is cleared up and everything else is explained. Perhaps then, if I feel—and I’m sure Lionel agrees with me—that Aunt Aurora was a bit hard on you, we might be prepared to help you.”
“All right, Vincent, I’ve given you a warning. I’ve still got one or two arrows to my bow. You’ll regret this. Just for the sake of two hundred quid! You are a fool. W’ell, I’m off to bed now. By the way, Raikes told me about the key of the medicine chest being found in your room. Funny, wasn’t it?” He got up from his chair. “You always were a sanctimonious couple even when you were kids,” was his parting shot as he shut the door.
“Don’t worry about him, Vincent,” I said. “Have another drink. He was always the same. I think you were quite right. About the money, I mean. Why, it was almost blackmail.”
Vincent swallowed the brandy which I had poured out for him in one gulp. “I think I’ll go to bed too,” he said, and I was left alone.
I listened to the wireless for a time, but, tiring of this, I began reading the novel I had started. I felt in my pockets for a cigarette but I remembered I had left them in my room. As I passed the room on the half-landing, on my way to retrieve my cigarette-case, I heard voices. The sound came from Edith Payne’s work room. I paused to listen. At first I thought it must be Vincent with her, but I soon recognised Hilton Gupp’s voice, though I could not distinguish what he was saying. I thought no more of it, and, having collected my cigarette-case, I was just settling down to read when Ellen came in and asked if she should lock up. I glanced at my watch and saw it was ten o’clock.
“Certainly, Ellen,” I said, and wished her good night.
It was just on midnight when I heard quiet footsteps coming down the stairs. I looked at my watch and was surprised to find it was so late, and I wondered who in this house could be wandering about at this time. As I listened I became aware of something furtive in those footsteps on the stairs, for they advanced very, very slowly and every time a step creaked they would stop for a second before they began once again their slow descent. My first thought was to go out boldly and confront whoever it was, but then the idea struck me that if I waited and watched I might get to know something of the mystery surrounding Camber Lodge. Fortunately the door of the room in which I sat was not quite closed, so that I could follow the sounds fairly distinctly. The footsteps now seemed to have reached the hall. I could hear the different tread as they left the heavy-piled stair-carpet and crossed over the oak floor and the thin Persian rugs. The footsteps began to approach the room in which I sat, and it was then that I began to be uneasy. I had only a shaded reading-lamp alight in the room and I could not be sure whether this could be seen from the hall or not. I sat hardly daring to breathe and with my eyes on the door, expecting to see it gradually opening. I heard the footsteps pause outside the door. Then, slowly, they began to move away. I must admit I was relieved. A metallic grating was the next sound that came to my ears. At first I could not decide what it was; then I heard a bolt being drawn back stealthily and realised that someone had taken off the old-fashioned chain and was opening the front door. I realised that here was a matter which I must investigate myself, though I could not help wishing that I had Beef with me. As I rose from my chair, I heard the front door being softly closed. The hall was dark as I entered, and I hurried to the front door before I should lose sight of whoever had gone out. I could easily distinguish a dark figure walking down the drive and from the gait I could tell it was a woman. I decided to follow.
It was a warm September night with enough moonlight to make my task of trailing easy. It was not until the figure in front came opposite a brightly-lit tram station that I was able to tell for certain that I was following Edith Payne, dressed in an old mackintosh with a hood. I felt a certain relief now that I knew who it was. It was late and I was tired. I was strongly tempted to go back home to bed but I wondered what Beef would say to me if I let this opportunity pass. Besides, I had begun myself to have some curiosity about this midnight jaunt. It was so out of keeping with the sedate hours of Camber Lodge. I remembered again how stealthily Edith had crept out of the house and I kept on the trail. She was setting a good pace now, but I had no difficulty in following at a safe distance. She seemed to be making for the old town, and I wondered what the prim Edith could want there. Was there some secret link between her and the dressmaker, Amelia Pinhole? She never paused, however, and presently she came out on the seafront near the old harbour. My interest was really aroused now and I watched her pressing forward with increased pace as if driven by some urgent purpose. She never gave a glance behind, and I felt it was safe to decrease the distance between us. I hurried forward, and as she came opposite the end of the old harbour I was not more than twenty yards behind. To my amazement she began to clamber over the old stone rampart. It was then I think that I guessed her purpose and began to run towards her.
“Edith!” I shouted. “Stop!” I saw her white face turn towards me for a moment and then she in turn started to run over the rough surface. Suddenly she darted to one side of the stone harbour wall. I saw her figure silhouetted against the moonlit water as she jumped. Then I heard the splash. I was now only a few yards behind and, marking the spot where I had last seen her, I jumped in after her. The tide, fortunately, was only half in and I could feel the bottom with my feet. At that moment the moon came out from a cloud and I could distinguish the figure of Edith rising to the surface only two yards away. In a few seconds I had her in my arms. She did not struggle and I managed to wade back with her to the beach. I laid her down on the shingle while I got my breath. I saw her eyes slowly open and gaze around.
“Oh God,” she cried, weeping, “what will happen to us now? Why didn’t you leave me there?”
I was cold, wet and tired. “Come on, Edith,” I said impatiently. “Pull yourself together.” I seized her arm and dragged her towards the lights of the town. I found a telephone kiosk and managed to telephone for a taxi. I told the driver some story of an accident on the rocks and tipped him heavily. When we reached Camber Lodge I roused Vincent and gave him a brief account of what had happened. He looked ghastly as he listened but I was too tired to worry.
“All right, Lionel,” he said, “I’ll get Ellen to look after Edith. You get to bed and we’ll talk in the morning.”
He seemed in a hurry to get rid of me, and I was in no mood to linger. I wanted a hot bath and bed, but as I came back once again to fetch my book Edith was in Vincent’s arms.
“Why did you do it?” I heard Vincent asking.