Neck and Neck
In Aunt Aurora’s house when she was alive, unless anyone was ill, breakfast was never served in bed. I was surprised, therefore, to wake and see the prim Ellen entering my bedroom with a tray.
“Good gracious, Ellen,” I greeted her, “whatever’s the time?”
“Half-past nine, sir,” she replied, putting the tray on my bedside table. “Mr. Vincent said you were not to be disturbed and told me to bring up your breakfast. I hope it’s all right.”
One glance at the tray was enough. Grapefruit, cereal, scrambled eggs, a roll, toast, marmalade, and a large steaming pot of coffee. I could almost hear Mary the cook saying in the kitchen, “Do him good to have a nice lie-in, Ellen, and I’ll get him a good breakfast.”
I had just finished eating what I could of this enormous tray-load and was lighting a cigarette when Vincent came in.
“How do you feel this morning, after your adventures last night?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m all right,” I replied. “How’s Edith?”
“Still a bit distraught. Hilton Gupp was the cause of it all, apparently. After he left us he went up to Edith and tried to get some money out of her. Frightened the life out of the girl with his threats. She thought Inspector Arnold was coming any moment to arrest us all for murdering Aunt Aurora. You know how upset she’s been since Aunt Aurora’s death. She must have felt it more than any of us, living here with her all that time.”
“Yes,” I said, but I thought somehow Edith’s behaviour during these last few days could not be accounted for solely by grief for my aunt, but I did not say so to Vincent.
“I don’t think we need say anything to anyone about last night. It’s obviously got nothing to do with Aunt Aurora’s death. Just a family secret. I don’t want Hilton to suspect anything. When he asked what all the noise was last night, I told him Edith had been taken ill in the night and roused Ellen, but that she was better this morning.”
“I’ll have to tell Beef,” I replied. “That reminds me. I must get up. Beef is due here this morning. He wants to see Hilton Gupp. I’d like a few words with Beef first.”
Vincent left me, and as I dressed I went over again in my mind the event of the evening before and Vincent’s explanation this morning. Somehow I was not quite satisfied about it all. When I came down I found Edith and Vincent together for the first time since Aunt Aurora’s death. They seemed on excellent terms. I thought of the sight of Edith in Vincent’s arms the night before. “Well, well,” I said to myself, “if that’s it, sooner he than I, but why have they been avoiding one another since the death of my aunt?”
I was glad when, soon after eleven, Beef arrived. I told him all that had happened. First how I had found that the police had been enquiring about me in town, then about Gupp trying to get money from Vincent, how I had heard the voices of Edith and Gupp in her room, and later of Edith’s attempt to throw herself in the sea. He listened to my long recital, nodding his head and every now and then asking a question, until I came to my brother Vincent’s explanation this morning.
“Think she’s sweet on him, do you? I thought so myself. What about your brother? He keen, do you think?”
“It’s very difficult to tell with Vincent,” I replied. “He’s always very much the schoolmaster.”
“Well, what about Gupp? He’s the one I want to talk to. Have you fixed it?”
Gupp, curiously enough, had seemed anxious to be on good terms with me when I met him after breakfast, though he avoided Vincent and Edith. I wondered whether he thought that I was the last chance of raising any money left to him and that he had better keep on good terms with at least one member of the family. When I had told him about Beef, who he was and how he was acting for the family, he seemed to be eager to help all he could. “Yes, I’d like a word with your old ex-copper,” he said. “That is, as long as your brother and Edith are not there.”
When I told Beef about this, I saw him take out his large watch from his waistcoat pocket. “Just nice time,” he said, and I knew at once he meant: “Get your car out. We’ll run down to the Pier Hotel and have a couple before dinner. No, don’t worry. Ellen will get hold of Gupp for me.”
I knew it was no use arguing. Twelve o’clock Sunday morning was to Beef what eleven o’clock matins had been to my Aunt Aurora. Neither of them ever missed.
Beef, having got his pint, did not waste much time. “Mr. Gupp, you know who I am and what I’m doing here. Trying to clear the family of anything to do with your auntie’s death. The police, of course, were bound to suspect you three. Why? Because of motive. It stands out a mile It wasn’t love in this case, so they reckon it was money. I know you’ll say you don’t get any dough under Miss Fielding’s Will, but you didn’t know that then, did you? So you’re just as much a suspect in their eyes as these two brothers. See?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Gupp replied. He seemed quite at ease. “But I happen to have been a hundred miles away when my aunt was poisoned. I say, Lionel, get me another large whisky, will you? I can see your friend Sergeant Beef is going to grill me, and it’s thirsty work.”
Beef lowered his pint with remarkable speed and I ordered their drinks and another Worthington for myself.
“Let’s go back a bit,” I heard Beef saying as I rejoined them. “You’ve just come back from the East Indies, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Hilton replied. “I arrived a few weeks ago.”
“Did you want to come back?” Beef went on.
“Not particularly. We do three years out there and then come back on leave. After that it’s up to the bank. But what’s all this got to do with Aunt Aurora’s death?” he asked.
“Just routine,” Beef answered. “Had you finished your three years out there?”
“Not quite,” Gupp admitted, finishing his second double and signalling to the overworked waiter.
“Did you get into trouble, then?” Beef asked. “Didn’t start embezzling the bank’s money?”
“Oh no,” Gupp answered. He paused to give his order and then began confidentially. “You see, it was like this. I lived rather well out there. Bit above my income. You know how it is in these hot climates. Drink, cards, women. Began to get into debt. The clubs started coming down on me and somehow the bank heard about it. That’s why I asked Vincent for that cash last night. If I don’t get it, I’ll lose my job. I warn you, if I lose that, I’ll make a hell of a stink for him and his precious new House at Penshurst.”
Beef listened to this quietly and then asked him what date he arrived.
“Early August,” he replied. “I can’t remember the exact date.”
“You didn’t waste much time in getting down to see your aunt, then,” Beef commented.
“Well, Sergeant, as I explained, I needed the cash. I knew what the bank would say. If you can’t clear your debts, you’ll have to go.”
“Urn,” Beef said. “Now let’s get on to the time of Miss Fielding’s death. I’ve heard about your movements at that time from the Inspector, but I’d like to go through it again with you. See, if I’m acting for the family I must have all the facts.”
“I was staying at the Randolph in Oxford for a couple of nights when Aunt Aurora was poisoned,” Gupp replied, and I could not help feeling, just as the Inspector had when he first heard Gupp’s story, that he was not only speaking the truth, but that there was no tension or fear behind his words.
Beef went into details of how Gupp had spent the day of my aunt’s death, and as Beef had been shown the police notes and verifications of his story I could not see what purpose Beef hoped to achieve.
“What did you do in the evening? You’ve got witnesses of everything up to six o’clock, but what about after that?”
Gupp looked taken aback for a moment. “But Aunt Aurora was dead by then,” he cried impatiently. “The police and everyone knew that. However,” he went on, in a more even tone as if to conciliate Beef, “there’s no mystery about it. I went for a pub crawl.”
“Meet anyone you knew?” Beef asked.
Gupp hesitated. “No,” he replied. “Remember I’ve been out of this country for three years, and then there was the war.”
Beef seemed satisfied, and I suggested returning to Canber Lodge for lunch. “You certainly seemed to be nicely covered against any suspicion that you had anything to do with poisoning your aunt,” Beef said, as he finished his last pint and rose to go.
Gupp looked up rather quickly at the Sergeant, but there was nothing in Beef’s expression, as far as I could see, that showed that his words meant more than they said.
On the morning of the inquest everyone at Camber Lodge seemed nervous and irritable, and I felt glad I was unlikely to be called. The inquest itself was the usual long-drawn-out affair, and all the witnesses except the servants—my brother Vincent, Edith Payne, the Misses Graves and the vicar—all seemed to be feeling the strain, and it seemed that, if I were an outsider judging them all, they would all have appeared to be guilty in some way or other.
Nothing new came up. They went thoroughly over the old ground. Everyone agreed that my Aunt Aurora, apart from having no reason, was the last person to take her life. The only point that seemed to be really established on medical evidence was that my aunt had died from morphia poisoning, but how or by whom it had been administered, was not known. And that was the verdict.
As I left the inquest with Beef we ran into Inspector Arnold, who was just walking towards his car.
“Just as you wanted it, I suppose, Inspector,” Beef said as we came up. “Leaves you a nice free hand.”
“What are your plans, Beef?” Inspector Arnold asked pleasantly enough. “Staying on?”
Beef took out his pipe and began slowly to fill the huge bowl.
“For a day or two, I think. I’m on another case in the Cotswolds that I ought to get back to, but I think I’ll just clear up one or two things here.”
“Such as?” the Inspector asked.
“One thing, how Miss Fielding was poisoned, if it wasn’t in the sherry. Seven people drank sherry that morning. Miss Fielding herself, the companion, the collector for missionary work, the two Misses Graves, the vicar and the dressmaker. Yet there were only six dirty glasses, no glass missing and none of the glasses nor the decanter had a trace of morphia. The person who did it obviously hoped to get away with accidental death.”
“Person or persons,” the Inspector said with some emphasis.
“Yes, as you say, Inspector, person or persons,” Beef repeated slowly, pausing in the middle of relighting his pipe. Then his manner abruptly changed. “Here, Inspector,” he asked, “you never traced any unusual purchase of morphia about that time?”
“We’ve tried. Had the Yard on it, too,” Inspector Arnold replied, “but we’ve had no luck yet. If I were you, I’d concentrate on motive. Money, in this case. As I said before, if you follow the motive you always get the right people in the end.”
“Meaning, Inspector, you think you know who did it,” Beef said with a sly chuckle. “You’re just hoping to dig up enough evidence to bring a case. Don’t blame you. By the way, did you ever trace anything about the woman who came to collect for some missionary work?”
“No local society seems to know anything about her,” the Inspector answered. “But, generous though Miss Fielding was, she wasn’t the sort to hand over contributions to anyone and, goodness knows, she had a pretty wide knowledge of charities and such like. I shouldn’t worry about her, Beef. Remember my words. Stick to the real motive. Good-bye.”
Beef lit his pipe and watched Inspector Arnold drive away in the police car. “Nice fellow, that Inspector,” he said. “Very helpful, too. He’s on to something and he doesn’t mean to let go. No fool, either, but I think he’s barking up the wrong tree.”
“You think you know better, I suppose.”
“Yes, now I think I know better,” Beef said slowly.
Something in the tone of his voice stopped me asking any questions and we drove silently back to Camber Lodge.
“I want to have another look at that room—where your aunt used to spend her mornings.”
I showed Beef into the morning-room, which looked so exactly as it always had looked that I had an awful feeling that my aunt might come bustling in and ask us in her usual good-natured way whether we had had a nice morning at the inquest. Beef’s voice broke into this grotesque reverie.
“I’d like to be quite satisfied about that sherry drinking,” he said. “I feel it must have been in the sherry that the morphia was put, but the Inspector was sure there was no trace of poison either in the glasses or the decanter. You see, that’s the only chance I can figure an outsider had of doing it. There’s no tap here anywhere, but if my theory is right, one of the glasses, the one with the morphia that was drunk by your aunt, must have been washed out.”
“I think we should have Ellen in again,” I said to Beef, who was poking into every corner. He agreed, and when Ellen entered he began to question her.
“Is there anywhere around here that someone could have washed a sherry glass,” she repeated, shocked at Beef’s question. “Why, Mr. Beef, whoever would want to do such a thing?”
For a moment I thought Beef had spoilt the good relations that his first interview had produced, but when he took her more into his confidence and explained what he was looking for, Ellen thawed.
“I see, Mr. Beef,” she almost simpered, so unlike the unbending figure I had always known. “You think someone washed the poison out of one of the glasses. Yes, I’m sure there were only six used and none were missing. Let me see. Water. No, there’s no tap here. There was no water in the flower vases because Miss Fielding had all the flowers thrown out the day before she died. She was going to do them that very afternoon, the poor soul.”
Ellen seemed suddenly to be struck with an idea.
“I wonder, Mr. Beef,” she said excitedly, “whether that was what it was with the goldfish?”
“Goldfish!” Beef almost shouted. “Was there a bowl of goldfish here?”
“Yes, I found them all dead a day or two after Miss Fielding died. I thought it was because no one had fed them. I felt so guilty about it that I threw them all away.”
“Pity,” Beef said. “But that’s about the answer. Thank you, Ellen. You’ve been very helpful. Very clever of you to think of that.”
“Have I really helped, Mr. Beef?” Ellen said, as she started towards the door. “Oh, I’m so glad. If it helps to find who killed the poor mistress, I shall have had my reward.”
“That was a bit of luck,” Beef said, as Ellen closed the door behind her. “Pity we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. Well, I must be getting back now.” Beef consulted his watch, and as I looked at the clock I was not surprised to see that it had just turned opening time. “See you in the morning. I’ve just one or two enquiries to make here and then I must get back to my case in the Cotswolds.”
“But, Beef,” I exclaimed hotly, “you can’t leave us in the air like that. Why, we’ll all be under suspicion until the whole thing’s cleared up.”
“Nothing much more to be done here,” Beef replied gruffly. “But don’t think I shan’t clear it all up . . . eventually. Good night.”
The house, after Beef had gone, seemed very empty. My brother Vincent had left immediately after the inquest for Penshurst School. Hilton Gupp, too, had gone back to London. Dinner alone with Edith was a miserable meal, and I felt glad that I need only stay a little while longer. I could not bear the thought of spending much more time in Camber Lodge with only Edith for company. As I wandered aimlessly about after dinner I realised how much of every thing in Camber Lodge had depended on Aunt Aurora and what an atmosphere of peace and restful comfort she had unwittingly created. I knew now why my brother and I had come down to stay with her so often, he after a long worrying term at school, I after one of Beef’s more sordid cases. It was the perfect antidote. Again I wondered who on earth could have brought themselves to kill so kind, so quiet a person as Aunt Aurora.
Having finished my own novel that morning, I picked up the first book I could find. It was lying with a pile of others on a side table in the morning-room. It was typical of a lot of books of my aunt’s. I smiled as I read the title—Tales of Missionary Work in North China—and began idly to turn the pages. As I did so, a small square of paper fell out. I stooped to pick it up and glanced at it. Only a receipt for a guinea, I noted, for some charity, and then something suddenly struck me and I looked more closely, 10th, September, I saw. Why, of course, that was the day of Aunt’s death. This must be, then, the receipt for the contribution my aunt had made the very morning she was poisoned. She had probably got the book out to show her visitor and slipped the receipt in without thinking. I put it carefully in my pocket. This would clear up another of the small points that Beef was worrying about.