Neck and Neck
My brother Vincent’s telegram was on the breakfast table. It had been addressed, I noticed, to the telephone number of my London flat and must have been delivered by the first post. I had been out all the day before and there had been nobody in the flat to answer the telephone. It was marked as being handed in at 4.30 p.m. at Hastings. I read it again.
“Aunt Aurora died suddenly this afternoon. Can get no answer from your phone. Will try in the morning. Vincent.”
I had hardly finished breakfast when the telephone bell rang and I heard Vincent’s voice at the other end. It was not, I thought, quite his usual tone, which I am afraid I always found a little too self-satisfied and pedagogic.
“This is Vincent.” He began assertively enough, but became rather shaky as he went on. “This is a most frightful business, Lionel. No, no, I don’t mean her death—she wasn’t a young woman. It’s that Dr. Rowley won’t sign the death certificate and there’s a police doctor here now. I do wish you’d come down as soon as you can. Yes, there are policemen here, too.”
“Of course I’ll come,” I answered at once. “When I got your telegram I planned to do so, anyway. But, Vincent, what was wrong with her? Aunt Aurora was never ill in her life.”
“I think I’d better tell you everything when you get here. Briefly, she felt terribly ill just after lunch, and by tea-time she was dead. Now when can you get here?”
“I’ll be down by lunch-time,” I replied, and rang off.
Vincent had sounded more flustered than I had ever known him to be. As I packed my bag I was suddenly struck by an odd thought. I wondered how Vincent had been able to get all the way from Gorridge in Essex in time to be at Aunt Aurora’s house if she had not been taken ill till after lunch. Only a week ago Vincent and I had spent a few days with her in Hastings, after which I had left for London knowing that Vincent was to leave later for Penshurst, the Essex public school where he had just been appointed housemaster.
I was soon on my way to Hastings, and as I drove down past Tonbridge and Pembury through the pale September sunlight I kept thinking about Aunt Aurora. She had seemed in such good health and spirits seven days ago on our visit to her comfortable Victorian house, and, after all, she could only be just over sixty. It was almost a traditional saying in our family that Aunt Aurora was never ill.
Aunt Aurora (her full name was Aurora Fielding) should have been a narrow-minded desiccated Victorian spinster, but somehow she was never anything of the kind. She had been brought up by governesses, her own mother having died when Aurora was three. Our grandfather, a well-known local doctor, had left almost everything to her, so that at the age of thirty she had inherited a well-furnished house, a large amount of money and no expensive taste other than good food. The house, Camber Lodge, was one of those large redbrick affairs behind the town, as solid and comfortable as the age in which they were built. It was furnished mostly in massive mahogany and there was a great deal of heavy silver everywhere, but now and then one was surprised at the sight of a delicate Sheraton table or an eighteenth-century mirror, a book or picture that did not quite belong to the rest, relics perhaps of earlier Fieldings.
As boys Vincent and I had loved to spend our holidays at Camber Lodge, for Aunt Aurora had a wonderful way of treating us which perhaps was so successful because it was unconscious. She never talked down to us as children but chatted away to us as equals, asking us our plans for the day and whether we had slept well. She had been brought up in the very strictest Low Church atmosphere, and even when we stayed with her in the early twenties there were still family prayers, which her servants attended—they had all been with her for years. I can still remember the delicious smell of breakfast, a blend of coffee, hot rolls, eggs and bacon, coming into the room, and I know that I hoped against hope, as only a hungry boy could, that the extract from the Bible would be short that morning and that there would not be too many references to look up in the Concordance.
Apart from these prayers and one morning visit with her on Sunday to St. Luke’s for the eleven-o’clock service, we could do what we liked. Whether we wished to fish all day from the pier or explore the country on our bicycles or walk to Fairlight Glen, Aunt Aurora would always make sure that ample hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches and fruit were packed up for us, and she usually gave Lionel a shilling or two to spend on lemonade or sweets for the two of us. At other times she would arrange to meet us at Addison’s and buy us chocolate éclairs or meringues and large cream cakes. There was always, too, the old town to explore with its unfailing smell of fish, the old fishermen with their blue jerseys and the lifeboat. There was even the hope, unhappily never fulfilled, of seeing this being launched.
I am afraid I have allowed myself to run away with these old memories of our childhood, but I wanted you to know what sort of a person Aunt Aurora was and the life she lived, and what reasons Lionel and I had for being grateful to her memory.
As soon as Ellen let me into the house and I saw a uniformed policeman standing by the staircase and my brother coming forward nervously and self-consciously to greet me, I knew there was something terribly familiar about the whole atmosphere. Somehow I had known it all before. I suddenly realised that it was, of course, a scene I had encountered so often in fiction and had myself described in my chronicles of Sergeant Beef. A house a day after someone had died in suspicious circumstances. I had entered it in a hundred detective stories. But to enter it in fact, to be a relation of the deceased (for that was what poor Aunt Aurora had become), seemed a little unreal and certainly most unfair. Why, I said to myself, as I tried to act naturally in greeting my brother and Doctor Rowley, the police may even be suspecting me of having a hand in her death!
“Hullo, Lionel,” my brother said. “There’s half an hour before lunch. Come into the morning-room. Will you come too, Doctor?” he asked Doctor Rowley.
The latter shook his head.
“I’ve got to see the Inspector and Dr. Clark, the police doctor, in a few minutes, but I’ll see you both before I go.”
Doctor Rowley had been Aunt Aurora’s doctor for many years and had known us since childhood.
When we were comfortably seated in the morning-room, and Vincent had poured out two glasses of sherry, he began to tell of Aunt Aurora’s sudden illness, but I interrupted him.
“Vincent, before you begin, I must know something. However did you manage to be here so quickly yesterday if Aunt Aurora only fell ill suddenly after lunch?”
Vincent coloured. “I’ve been here all the week,” he replied, in a rather unnecessarily defensive tone.
“All the week!” I echoed incredulously. “But when I left you six days ago you were just packing up to go back to your new house at Penshurst!”
“I changed my mind. I had a few things to attend to in Hastings and Aunt Aurora wanted me to stay on. But don’t let’s waste time discussing my movements. I want to tell you about yesterday.”
From his story I learnt that the morning had passed without incident. Aunt Aurora had spent it as she must have spent countless mornings. There had been, of course, family prayers, followed by breakfast. Vincent had gone out for a walk, but he had since learnt that Aunt Aurora followed her usual routine. She had spent two hours or so in the room we were sitting in, settling minor household details and accounts and writing one or two letters. There had been a few callers but none of them were unusual: the vicar, who was an old friend of my aunt, and the two Miss Graves, elderly spinsters who attended the same church and were also friends of many years’ standing, a lady collecting for some missionary work, and my aunt’s dressmaker. My aunt had then taken Spot, her wire-haired terrier, for a walk. She had gone alone, but she had been seen taking him on to the common at the end of her road, as usual and had come back at a quarter to one—her accustomed time. It was during lunch that Vincent had first noticed that there was something wrong with Aunt Aurora. As always she sat in that upright and dignified manner that belonged to the last century, but when some stewed pears were being served she seemed suddenly to slump and Vincent noticed a strained expression in her face. Eventually she hurriedly excused herself. Miss Payne, her companion, had followed her out and come back shortly after.
“I think we’d better send for Doctor Rowley at once, Vincent,” she said. “I don’t like the look of her.”
Vincent had telephoned Doctor Rowley and luckily found him in. He spent most of the afternoon with my aunt, coming in at intervals with a grave face and asking Vincent about what Aunt Aurora had had for lunch, looking more worried each time.
At four o’clock he had come in, and by the look on his face Vincent knew that Aunt Aurora was dead. The doctor seemed extremely upset, and Vincent said that at the time he put this down to Rowley’s being an old friend of my aunt’s. It was not until he announced that he had sent for Doctor Clark, the police doctor, that my brother had any suspicion that Aunt Aurora’s illness was not perfectly natural. It had seemed very sudden, but he had imagined heart failure, and poison had never entered his mind. Doctor Clark arrived and with him a plain-clothes detective. The police doctor must have confirmed Dr. Rowley’s suspicions because soon after that a uniformed policeman arrived and Aunt Aurora’s bedroom was locked up. Vincent gave his account of what had happened when he was interviewed by the plain-clothes Inspector, whose name was Arnold, and that was all he knew.
He had just finished telling me his story when the door opened and Ellen the parlourmaid came in. “Inspector Arnold would like a word with you and Mr. Lionel. May I shew him in, sir?” she asked.
Inspector Arnold was a brisk business-like man. Neither his clothes, a neat blue suit, nor his face gave much away. Refusing a glass of sherry, he addressed us at once.
“I’m afraid there will have to be an autopsy and probably an inquest. Neither Doctor Rowley nor our police doctor are satisfied about your aunt’s death. I must go down to the station now, but I would like to have a word with all the staff after lunch, and perhaps you and your brother could be available this afternoon. I shall leave two of my men here. Your aunt’s body has been taken away already,”
“Of course,” Vincent replied. “We shan’t be going out.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll be going,” Inspector Arnold said. “I’ll make all the arrangements about the autopsy. The funeral had better be next Wednesday, if that would be convenient to you. By the way, before I go, I should just like a list of everyone in the house.”
Vincent gazed at the ceiling and began enumerating them. “First there’s Miss Payne, my aunt’s companion. A very distant relation of ours. The staff consists of Mary, the cook, Ellen, the parlourmaid, and young Charlie, Mary’s son, who drives the old Daimler and helps the gardener and in the house. The gardener comes daily. I think that’s all. Oh, well,” he went on, “of course there’s Mary’s husband, Tom Raikes. My aunt allowed him to sleep in the house when he was at home, but he’s often away for weeks at a time. He’s working as a bookmaker’s clerk, and it was only because Mary is such an old servant that Aunt Aurora allowed him near the place.”
“All right, thank you. I’ll see them this afternoon,” said the Inspector as he left us. I looked quickly across at Vincent and caught a very worried expression in his eyes, which I could not understand. I mean, much as he often irritated me, I just could not begin to suspect my brother of having anything to do with Aunt Aurora’s death. Yet something was troubling him and I did not quite believe that he had told me the whole truth about his extended stay in Hastings.
Edith Payne joined us for lunch and nobody did much talking. There seemed to be an air of constraint between Edith and my brother, though I always thought they were friendly enough. I must confess that I never liked Edith. She was a distant cousin of ours and about the same age. She was the daughter of a parson who together with his wife had succumbed to Spanish influenza after the first world war, leaving Edith unprovided for. Aunt Aurora had brought her up and she had lived with my aunt ever since, helping her with church bazaars and charities, accompanying her shopping and doing all the odd things that fall to the lot of poor relations. But she was not the faded quiet mousy type at all. She always had plenty to say, prefacing most of her remarks with “Your dear aunt thinks . . .” or “Your dear aunt wishes . . .” Though she appeared to share my aunt’s interest in church affairs and charities, I could not help feeling that some at least of her Christian humility was put on for my aunt’s benefit. There was something unnatural in her invariable good humour, and I thought I had caught quite a different expression now and again behind her thick-lensed glasses. Perhaps I was prejudiced, for Vincent did not share my dislike. They were exactly of the same age, and that made a difference when we were kids. I had been two years younger, and often jealous at being left out as too young for a visit to a theatre or a party, while Edith and Vincent, in those days, had sometimes shared secrets denied to me. I could not help noticing on our last visit that Edith did not seem to annoy Vincent as she did me. In fact they spent a lot of time together. It was because of this that I noticed how little they spoke to one another now.
Soon after lunch Inspector Arnold returned and was given the morning-room for his interviews. To my surprise he called me in first.
“I’ve asked you to come here first, because I don’t think I need keep you long. Let me see, you’re Mr. Lionel Townsend. Now, sir, I would just like you to tell me what you did all yesterday. Your brother tells me he tried to get you by ’phone at your flat in London but was unsuccessful.”
He looked across at me, balancing a fountain-pen between his fingers.
“Just a few details of your day that we can verify, and then we needn’t trouble you further.”
“Well, Inspector,” I answered, “I’ll certainly tell you what I did. It was such a lovely day that I thought I’d have a day in the country. The woman who comes to my flat for two hours every morning cut me some sandwiches. I took a couple of bottles of beer and drove off. I took the Henley road and just toured round.”
“Didn’t you speak to anyone? Buy cigarettes or petrol?”
“I’m afraid not. Mine is a very small car and the tank holds enough for two hundred miles. I don’t even know the villages I passed through. I had my lunch in a wood and got home about seven o’clock, had some food and went to the cinema.”
“H’m,” said the Inspector. “Your statement doesn’t help us much. Well, if that’s all you can tell me. . . .”
“I’m afraid it is,” I interrupted. “You see, I didn’t know I should have to account for my day or I could have so easily done better.”
I was glad to get out of the room. The Inspector’s cold questioning upset me. As everyone else was going to be busy being questioned I took the terrier Spot out on the common, and there in the open, throwing sticks for the dog, I felt better. Spot did not seem as upset as I expected by the absence of his mistress, but I noticed that when I turned homewards he scurried back to the house, and I found him scratching at the drawing-room door where normally Aunt Aurora would be at that time of the afternoon.
It was just before dinner that Doctor Rowley called. The Inspector had been gone some time. Vincent and I took him into the morning-room, but from his face I think we had already guessed what he had to tell us.
“I fear my suspicions were correct. We found a large quantity of morphia in your aunt’s body. That’s not a poison that could be taken by accident, at least not in that quantity. I’m sure you’ll agree that the very idea of your aunt attempting suicide is unthinkable. I’m afraid it looks very, very serious to me.”
When he had gone Vincent sank into an arm-chair. “Well,” he said, “we know the worst now.” He seemed almost relieved that any doubt about my aunt’s death had vanished. “Whoever could have wanted to murder poor old Aunt Aurora?”
Just then the bell rang for dinner. “We’d better have a chat after dinner,” he said, leading the way to the dining-room.
“Where’s Edith?” I asked Ellen, noticing that only two places were laid.
“Oh, Miss Edith is not feeling well and has gone to bed,” Ellen replied.
“Nothing serious?” Vincent queried anxiously.
“Oh no, sir. It has been too much for her, that’s all. Detectives, doctors and policemen—ambulances and questions.”
Ellen sailed out of the room, managing to convey with a slight sniff and head held high that she found the way in which my aunt’s death was being treated rather vulgar and disrespectful in this ordered household.
“Look here, Vincent, I’m going to call in Beef,” I began, as soon as we were settled comfortably in front of a fire.
By this curious sentence I meant that I felt it high time to consult my old friend ex-Sergeant Beef. Whatever mystery might attach itself to the death of Aunt Aurora would be dissolved as soon as he had investigated it. I could no longer blind myself to the fact that Beef was a genius. I had known him first as a heavy-footed country policeman whose ginger moustache seemed nourished by the beer into which it was all too frequently dipped. Like others I had refused to take him seriously as a detective, for his methods seemed outwardly slap-dash and he himself openly scorned the modern scientific methods—“mucking about with microscopes” as he called them. But his hardy common sense, so blunt and English, so boorish as I sometimes thought, had prevailed too often to leave any doubt about his really profound cleverness. I had seen him shoulder his way into some delicate investigation, lay his great hand on a clue and triumphantly point out the murderer, while brains which appeared more subtle and polished remained bewildered.
I had chronicled a number of his successful cases, but it was not with the hope of finding material for a book that I wanted to summon him. It was because I was deeply troubled, even a little scared, and I wanted the comfort of his gross but reassuring personality.
Vincent, however, took the most cynical view of my motives.
“I am surprised at you, Lionel,” he said, with a rekindling of some of his old sarcastic fire. “I shouldn’t have thought you would wish to make a detective-story-fan’s holiday out of Aunt Aurora’s death. Is nothing secure from being used as grist to your mill?”
I began to protest, but he ignored this.
“Oh, I’ve no doubt it will make an excellent novel,” he said loftily. “And I admit that Beef will as usual get to the bottom of it. But in such a personal case I should have preferred to leave it to the police.”
“Well, you know what the police will look for. Motive. And the only motive that anyone could have for doing away with Aunt Aurora is money.”
Vincent winced. “Yes, yes, I know, but we don’t know it’s murder,” he said; but I knew from his voice that he was only trying to persuade himself of a possibility of which there was little hope.
“Well, assuming Aunt Aurora has been poisoned, who are the chief suspects? You and I. You’re her executor, and you’ve always told me that she’d left the bulk of her money to us.”
“And cousin Hilton Gupp,” Vincent added. “You’re forgetting Hilton. He is the only other close relative of Aunt Aurora’s, and the money was divided more or less equally between us.”
“The only trouble about Hilton as a suspect,” I replied nastily, “is that you were on the spot and he wasn’t.”
“I don’t know,” Vincent countered in his most superior tone, “where either Hilton or you were yesterday. For all I know—”
“This won’t do, Vincent. We shall start suspecting each other soon. I can’t think why you don’t want to have Beef. You welcomed him at Penshurst School, and he solved the case. Now when there’s a case which is vital to us you discourage the idea. I don’t understand you.”
Vincent stared for some time into the fire.
“All right, Lionel. Perhaps you are right.” His voice sounded weary. “Send for him if you like. I’m going to bed.”
Before I retired I wrote a letter to Beef, giving him an outline of the matter and begging him to come down to Hastings as soon as he could. I pleaded the fact that I myself was so closely involved to persuade him to come.
As I fell asleep, I could not help wondering exactly how much money we should inherit from Aunt Aurora.