Neck and Neck, Chapter Nine

Neck and Neck

CHAPTER NINE
   
After some twenty miles or so of the main windswept road, we turned off to the right.  A signpost gave several names, none of which I had ever heard before, but among them I could see Cold Slaughter 16 miles.  This, Beef told me, was a village some five miles from the.  house where Edwin Ridley had been murdered.  “There’s quite a nice little pub there where I stayed before,” he added.  “I’ve sent them a telegram, so they’ll be expecting us.”
We were driving now down quite a narrow lane.  The country had become more hilly and wooded.  I could see little but the walls of grey Cotswold stone on either side.  Occasionally we passed a cluster of farm buildings, but for the most part the countryside looked wild and deserted.  Once we came on a small village at the bottom of a steep hill, but before we had time to see anything the lane swerved abruptly and we were climbing again.
The wind had risen, with night coming on, and a fine rain had begun to settle on the windscreen.  I was glad when at last at the top of a hill I saw some lights below and knew that we must be close to our destination.
“This looks like it,” Beef said, as we passed a cottage or two.  The road opened up after the first few houses into an open space and I could see that Cold Slaughter was quite a small village.
“The Shaven Crown.  There’s our pub,” Beef said, pointing out to me a building that in our headlights looked cold and austere.  There were lights shining inside, however, and I was glad the journey was over.  I had not made any further protest at Beef’s dropping my aunt’s case to continue his investigation of this one because I realised that it would be useless.  Once a resolve had formed in his thick head, nothing could shift it.  He had promised faithfully to return to Hastings, and I had to admit that the Cotswold murder sounded a promising one from the literary point of view.  Besides, although I would not admit it, I had rather come round to Beef’s suggestion about running the two stories in harness.  Why not?  Two murders on the same day being investigated by the same detective at the same time . . . they were linked securely enough to make a single novel.  At any rate, I had decided to try them like that.
I drove the car under an old arch into a large courtyard, where we left it and entered the bar.  Half an hour later, with the car safely parked in a garage, our bags in our rooms, a large whisky in my hand and the smell of a meal being prepared for us, I began to feel more cheerful.  After an excellent supper of veal cutlets and Welsh rarebit, Beef told me what he had discovered so far about the death of Edwin Ridley.
I was to learn much about Edwin Ridley, his early life and his business as publisher, from his brother, Alfred, the clergyman, and from an old friend of mine, who was also my literary agent, Michael Thorogood.  What I gathered from Beef that evening were the facts about Ridley’s murder so far as Beef had managed to learn them in the few days he was down here, before he received my letter about Aunt Aurora’s death and left for Hastings.
“Well,” Beef began, “as I told you, the morning after Edwin Ridley was found dead the police naturally got in touch with his nearest relative.  That was his brother, the clergyman.  He’s the one I told you about.  He was in a nice state, thinking his children might lose all the insurance, the whole thirty thousand quid, if it turned out to be suicide.  All he knew was that his brother had been found dead with a rope round his neck.  He had heard about me by chance—I’d once helped some friends of his wife over a little matter of retrieving a stolen necklace—and he hops in a taxi and comes rushing round to me.  We have a little argument over the fee.  He was nearly as close with money as his brother must have been.  You could see he was torn between parting with a few quid and losing the chance of a fortune.  All he wanted me to do was to see that the coroner’s verdict wasn’t suicide.  ‘If I take up the investigation,’ I said to him very dignified, ‘I shall probe it to the depths.  One hundred quid,’ I said, ‘and expenses limited to fifty.  That’s my last word.’  He tried to beat me down on expenses, but he saw it was no good and eventually agreed.  I came down here that very day, landed up at the nearest station, hired a car, and reached the house.  I was lucky to catch the Superintendent in charge there and get in right with him.  I showed him a letter from the Rev. Alfred Ridley, authorising me to act for the family, and he became quite pally.  I think he was glad of a bit of support.  He hadn’t had many big cases round here.”
Beef paused to lower half his tankard.  “You’ll see the house tomorrow, so I won’t go into that,” he went on.  “Gloomy great place.  Ridley lived there with only two servants, a man and his wife.  I wouldn’t trust either further than I could see.  Then there’s a young secretary, young fellow of about twenty-five.  A bit nancified, he seemed to me.  That’s all the household.  Ridley was found by the manservant hanging from a beam in the large room which he used as a study and for his books.  That was about six o’clock in the morning.  The body was quite stiff and cold then.  He rushed out and roused the secretary.  He took one glance at the body and phoned the police.  Death must have occurred about six hours before the body was found, so all this took place around midnight of the tenth of September.  That, if you remember, was the day your aunt was poisoned.”
Beef paused.  Then slowly that expression of amusement came into his face that I knew so well—amusement at some piece of human pretention or frailty.
“And the joke of it is,” he said, “that if the Reverend Alfred Ridley hadn’t been quite so eager, he would have saved his hundred and fifty quid because by the next day it had been established on medical evidence that Edwin Ridley was already dead, strangled, before he was strung up on a rope.  Suicide never came into it, and as far as the reverend was concerned I never had to lift a finger.  ’Course he was wild as soon as he heard.  He wrote me at once, apologising for giving me the unnecessary trouble of a journey to Gloucestershire and saying that he was sure I would agree that my services were no longer required in view of the doctor’s decision.  Fortunately, seeing what sort of bird he was, I’d made him sign one of my contract forms, so he can’t get out of it.  Funny, wasn’t it?”
I suggested moving into the bar now, as the green-plush tablecloth, the bronze bowls of ferns, and the fading photographs of early relations of the innkeeper were beginning to depress me.  There Beef continued.
“It looked like an outside job.  Ridley kept some valuable books in his library and there was some nice stuff in the house.  Two people benefited by his Will.  First there was the clergyman, but apart from his calling me in he had his alibi vouched for that night by a dozen people apart from his family.  Then his niece.  She gets the bulk of the money—which is quite a lot, I believe.  She, I understand, is a frail little thing nearly forty who spent that night with the Dean of Fulham and, anyway, hadn’t the strength to string Ridley up from a beam.”
“What I can’t understand, Beef,” I said, “is why you are going on with this case now.”
“I told the Reverend Alfred I was going to probe it to the depths, and probe it I will.  Besides, there are one or two strange things in this case that interest me.  Interest me very much indeed.
“Also,” he had added with a twinkle, “there’s that fifty quid expenses.  I’m going to spend every penny of it.”
Next morning we set out after breakfast for Bampton Court, which was the name of Ridley’s house.
The rain that had begun to fall the night before still persisted, and the country looked cold and colourless.  We came to some rather fine wrought-iron gates and drove in.  The drive was little more than a rutted cart-track overgrown with weeds, and the fields on either side looked equally untended.  We passed through a small wood, and round a bend we came on the house.  Even to my untutored eye it was obviously a beauty—as fine a piece of seventeenth-century architecture as you could meet.  Yet curiously, as Beef had said, it was a great gloomy place.  As I looked around I realised why it should seem to be so.  The garden had been allowed to grow quite wild, the grey Cotswold stone was covered with moss where it was visible at all, for trees and creepers had invaded terrace, lawn and drive, all around the house entirely unchecked and seemed to be eager to overwhelm and strangle the shapely beauty of window and eave.  Only the tall slim Tudor chimneys rose still free from those green, engulfing tentacles.
“Gloomy, isn’t it?” Beef said.  “Can’t understand anyone living in a place like that.”
I nodded.  Yes, I thought, but the gloom was due to decay and neglect, and must to a certain extent reveal something of the man who had lived here.  I could imagine the house a hundred and fifty years ago in the time of Jane Austen, the home of a large family, the gardens laid out, and the stables full of horses and carriages.  It would not have been gloomy then.
Beef went up to the front door, a fine piece of old oak, and pulled at the bell.  An unprepossessing figure of a man of about forty-five appeared, untidy and dirty and looking as if he could do with a shave.
“Oh, it’s you back, is it?” he said to Beef morosely.
Beef paid no attention but pushed into the house, saying he wanted to speak to Mr. Lovelace, the secretary.  “That’s the manservant I told you about,” Beef said, as the man stumped off to find the secretary.  We were standing in a large hall and I could see that, although everything seemed worn and undusted, there was some valuable furniture there, rugs and chairs and a particularly fine gate-legged table.  I had little time to observe everything before a tall willowy figure appeared.
“I’m so glad to see you, Mr. Beef.  I’m going positively crazy in this house alone.  Well, alone except for those two revolting servants, who are quite out of hand now that there’s no master in the house.  We haven’t met,” he said pleasantly enough, but I was conscious of two very blue, very shrewd eyes fixed on me.
“This is Mr. Lionel Townsend,” Beef said.  “He helps me with most of my cases and then writes them up.  This is the late Mr. Ridley’s secretary, Mr. Lovelace.”
“Yes.  I’m Adrian Lovelace.  How do you do?  So you’re the Doctor Watson, are you, or is it the Captain Hastings, of the ménage?  I’ve always wanted to meet one of those faithful recorders.  Such nice, dependable men, so loyal and not too fashionably subtle.  We must have a long talk about the writing of detective stories.  I’m an absolute glutton for them, and I’ve some wonderful theories.”
I could see that Beef was getting impatient while the young man prattled on in a pleasant but rather high-pitched voice.  Though too thin and pale, his features were arrestingly well-formed, but there was something displeasing to me about him.  Whether it was the slightly petulant mouth or the closeness of his very pale-blue eyes, I could not decide.  His clothes, too—the pale-grey suit, lavender tie and grey suede shoes—though all expensive and beautifully made, did not seem right in this house.  They were more suited to Maidenhead or a theatrical garden party.
“I’d like to have another look at the room where the old boy was found dead,” Beef said, and Lovelace led the way down a long stone corridor at the end of which was a stout oak door set in a stone arch.
“This room was built on much later,” Lovelace said, turning a huge key.  “It’s less than a hundred years old.  It was used as a private chapel by the family who lived here.  They died out in the 1914 war and the house was empty until Edwin Ridley bought it about 1930.  It’s an ugly barn of a place, as you see.”
I gazed around and wondered how anyone could so misuse the stone of the Cotswolds.  There were tall Victorian gothic windows with clear leaden panes, except at the far end where stained-glass windows in hideous garish colours gave a ghoulish nineteenth-century version of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac.  There was a lot of fumed oak and a door leading out into the garden crowned with the inevitable gothic arch.  The roof was open and beams ran from side to side.  Everywhere the plain dignity of the stone had been spoilt by a fussy foliated design.  Most of the walls were lined with bookshelves, and books of every kind and shape filled them.
“Yes,” Lovelace said, as he saw me looking at them, “he was a bibliophile.  A real honest-to-god collector—about the only honest thing about him, I’m afraid.”
I looked around at the old calf folios and quartos, at the sets in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century morocco, and at the rows of three-volume novels, the gilt lettering still bright even in this dim-lit room.
“Must be a valuable collection,” I said.
“Valued at about twenty thousand for probate a few years ago, but he’s added quite a bit since.”
Beef showed me the beam from which Edwin Ridley had been found hanging.
“How did the murderer get him up there?” I asked.
“He must have used one of the ladders we keep for fruit-picking,” Lovelace replied.  “But would you like to hear the whole story?  I almost know it by heart now, I’ve told it so often.”
Beef had opened the door into the garden and was busy examining both inside and out, so I agreed.
“Well, the last time I saw my employer alive,” he began, “was at dinner that night.  We dined together, as usual.  Perhaps the only slightly strange thing was that he sent Fagg— that’s the unshaven creature who let you in—for a bottle of red wine.  We were having duck, I remember, and he particularly wanted a bottle of Burgundy.  It wasn’t unheard of for him to open a bottle, though he was as mean as hell, but it was almost always when he had some guest who was useful to him or when he had picked up cheap some unusual bargain for his collection.”
Lovelace noticed that Beef had joined us.  “Oh, Mr. Beef, you don’t want to hear all my story over again, do you?” he said, but he seemed pleased at the addition to his audience.
“I was always free after dinner, as Ridley invariably took his cigar into this room and spent the evenings with his beloved books.  I would sometimes hear him go to bed about twelve, but often the whole household was asleep before he retired.  Fagg used to leave a glass and a siphon of soda for him on the side there.  He had his own bottle of whisky locked in a cabinet after he had found the bottle an inch and a half lower than he had left it, so he said.  Quite a fuss there was.  It must have been Fagg, because I wouldn’t touch the beastly stuff.  I don’t mind an occasional gin and lime, but whisky.  Eugh!”
I caught Beef’s eye, and it was all I could do to suppress a chuckle.
“So you see he was never disturbed at night.  I went off on my motor-cycle to play bridge with the doctor at Cold Slaughter.  I got back about twelve.  The lights were still on in this room, I could see as I put my bike away.  There was nothing unusual inside the house.  I drank my glass of hot milk and went straight to bed.  The next thing I knew was a fearful banging at my door.  There was the creature Fagg, looking even more dishevelled and repulsive than ever, shouting that the master had hanged himself and screeching to me to come down quickly.  I threw on a few clothes and followed Fagg to this room.  Oh, it was quite awful.  It was still not yet light and there was that thing dangling on the end of a rope.  I nearly fainted.  However, the Fagg creature seemed to have quite lost his head so I had to do everything myself.  There was a chair upset below the body.  I picked it up and stood on it.  I could touch the body from there.  It was quite cold and stiff.  I went straight to the hall and telephoned the police.  Then I was sick.”
He paused and looked round at us both as if he expected a round of applause.
“What I want to know,” Beef said, “is why Fagg was up and about the house at six o’clock.  That was when he found him, I think.  I’m sure it’s not usual for either of them to get up at that hour.”
“I asked him that,” Lovelace replied.  “He said he couldn’t sleep and got up to make a cup of tea.  Then he thought he’d have a look at the paper.  Of course the paper of the day before.  We don’t get a paper delivered in this place before midday.  He knew that his master always took the papers into his book-room after dinner so he came down to that door.”  He pointed to the door leading from the corridor.  “It was locked and he could see the key was inside.  This really surprised him, as he knew his master was always in the habit of turning the key from the corridor side on his way to bed.  He went into the garden and round the side of the house to see if the garden door was open by any chance.  Well, it was, and that’s how he came to be banging and shouting at my door.”
“Do you do the cataloguing of these books?” I asked Lovelace.
“For my sins,” he said, showing me a large cabinet full of cards.  “Here they all are, neatly typed.  A4,” he quoted.  “That’s the shelf.  Milton, John. . . .  You see there’s a separate card for each book.  Every time he got a new lot, he used to dictate to me a description of each book and I’d type a card.”
“Then you’d know if anything was missing?” I asked.
“You are a Doctor Watson,” he replied impatiently.  “That was one of the first questions your friend Beef and the Superintendent asked me.  Well, as I told them, I couldn’t check the whole library, but he kept his really valuable books locked in a special case.  That one over there.  The cards were also in a tray of their own.  It was easy to go through them, and I soon found that none of his really valuable books had disappeared.”
He paused and turned to Beef.
“One rather curious thing I noticed.  You see that bundle of books over there.  About half a dozen of them.  The paper they were wrapped in is still there.  I’ve never seen them before and I’m pretty sure they weren’t here the afternoon before Ridley was murdered.  I would have noticed them.”