Neck and Neck, Chapter Ten

Neck and Neck

Beef did not shew any great interest in the books, saying, “We’ll have another look at them presently.  I’m more interested in the packing.  The books are more in your line,” he said, turning to me.
“Now, Mr. Lovelace, I want to get some real idea about the late Mr. Edwin Ridley.  We’re all agreed that he was murdered, that the murder took place about midnight, that he was strangled by hand first and then strung up with a new piece of rope.  If it wasn’t you or Fagg, it must have been the work of someone outside.  Do you know any likely reason anyone had for bumping him off?  Any special enemies?”
Lovelace thought for a moment.
“It’s like this, Sergeant.  While he was alive and my employer, I never said anything against him, but now he’s dead I feel free to speak.  I think he was the hardest and meanest man I’ve ever met.  Mind you, it didn’t affect me.  He paid me a good salary.  We lived well and, though he worked me hard, I had entire freedom to do what I liked when he didn’t want me.
“I should think in an area of fifteen miles there are a dozen people who hated the sight of him for one reason or another, but I can’t say that any of them would take their dislike as far as murder.  It’s been one long series of local rows since I’ve been here, and that’s over two years.  Would you like to hear the local gossip?  If you would I suggest we move out of here into my sitting-room.  This place gives me the shivers.  I’ll make you some coffee.”
He led the way on to a half-landing and shewed us into his room.  After the cold bleakness of the rest of the house it was pleasant to find this bright little oasis.  A fire was burning in a Queen Anne grate, there were bright curtains and rugs, and on the walls well-framed prints of the French impressionists.  Rows of modern books of the more esoteric type lined his bookshelves, and the whole effect rather reminded me of the room of a female student at Oxford in the early ’thirties.
“Do you like it?” he asked me, as he began to toy with a percolator and a coffee grinder. “I must say it’s very different from the rest of the house,” I replied, noncommittally.  “It’s pleasant to see a fire.”
Beef was making violent signs behind Lovelace’s back, which I gathered meant that he was not keen on the idea of coffee, but wanted a drink.
“Beef doesn’t care for coffee,” I said to Lovelace.  “What he’d really like is a glass of beer, if you have one in the house?”
“You’d like my coffee, Sergeant,” he replied.  “But if you prefer beer I’ll go and get a bottle or two from the cellar.”
As soon as the door had shut behind him, Beef said in a hoarse whisper:
“See what I mean when I said ‘a bit nancified’.  But he’s no fool and we may get something from him.  I don’t think much went on here that he didn’t know about.  Regular old woman for his gossip, I should say.”
He came back with a few bottles of beer and poured out one for Beef.
“I don’t really know where to begin,” he said, as he busied himself with preparing the coffee.  “I think the first row he had was when he stopped the village cricket team playing their matches on five-acre.  The Cold Slaughter team had played there for years and it was the only decent flat piece of ground in the district.  But it was his ground, and though they offered to pay rent he wouldn’t alter his decision.  Some of the lads had annoyed him, and the local grocer, he considered, had overcharged him.  That led to a lot of unpleasantness.  Some of the chaps even came up here one Saturday night and covered everything with green paint.  The next trouble I think was with the Hunt.  Old Colonel Lethbridge is the M.F.H.  He lives about seven miles away.  Nice old boy, but a bit eccentric and irascible.  Ridley claimed five pounds from the Hunt for the loss of some chickens, which he said a fox had had.  The Hunt sent him two guineas, saying they were very short of funds, so Ridley closed his grounds to the Hunt.  There are about six hundred acres belonging to Bampton Court.  The old colonel came to see him, thinking he could settle the whole dispute with a few words.  Ridley threatened to have him thrown out, and the colonel, whose temper was never very good, called him a usurious ill-mannered paper-merchant.  Ridley was a publisher, you know.  I thought the colonel was going to strike Ridley with his riding-crop, but he managed to control himself.  He jumped on his horse and rode off, uttering the most blood-curdling threats and oaths I’ve ever heard.”
I dare say the result may be worth the trouble, but I am afraid I would never have the patience that some people have over making coffee.  All this business of grinding beans and heating and cooling in percolators, it may be worth it.  I don’t know.  There only seems to me to be one essential thing about making coffee and that is to put in enough coffee.  I must say, when I did eventually receive a cup from Lovelace, it was good and strong.  However, I, too, should have preferred beer.
“I gathered he wasn’t very popular around here,” Beef said, pouring himself out another bottle of beer, “but I didn’t know it was as bad as all that.  Any other quarrels?”
Lovelace gave a little snigger.
“Dozens, my dear Sergeant,” he replied, losing his stiff, rather prim manner as I had seen so many people do after Beef had been in their company a short time.
“He prosecuted poor old Tom and Harry Purkis.  Two old brothers.  They had always spent Sunday mornings ferreting for rabbits down by the old quarry.  It did no harm.  In fact the place is overrun with rabbits.  Ridley had them up before the local bench and they were fined.  That caused a lot of bad blood.  The old boys hadn’t a bean, but everyone in the village liked them.  They were always willing to help with any odd job.  Oh, there were a lot more.  There was some trouble with the doctor, and then the two families who live in the cottages down by five-acre.  He wanted to turn them out.  He was still fighting about that up to the time of his death.  As for the rows in the house . . .”
“With the Faggs?” Beef queried.
“Yes, two or three weeks I’d hear them go at it hammer and tongs, but I think they all had too much on the other one to come into the open, though they gave each other notice time and again.”
“And what about you?” Beef asked.  “Did you never quarrel with him?”
Lovelace smiled.  “No,” he said.  “I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I’m afraid you’ll really have to dismiss me as a suspect.  Much as I disliked the old boy, the job suited me.  I adore the Cotswolds and I’m just in the middle of my book on modern poetry—Auden and Spender and all those, you know.  I’m making a final and definitive anthology from Eliot onwards and I’m writing the most explosive preface.”
“So his death doesn’t suit you, then,” Beef said, rather brutally ignoring the poor fellow’s literary aspirations.  “Apart from people round here, did he have trouble with anyone else, do you know?” Beef went on.
“There was always trouble with people in his business, but I saw very little of that.  One or two of his authors threatened to sue him, I believe, and we had that young fellow down here who tried to commit suicide in the grounds, saying Ridley had robbed his mother of her life’s savings.  You may remember the case, possibly, about six months ago.  Young fellow called Greenleaf, who’d written a novel.  I don’t really know the rights and wrongs of it, but apparently Ridley had made him pay towards the publishing and it never sold more than a few copies.  The young man came down here and forced his way into Ridley’s study.  Ridley had him thrown out, and he took poison in the grounds, leaving a letter blaming Ridley for his action.  He had not taken enough poison, and recovered.  However, Ridley proved the transaction was perfectly legal.  The fellow was obviously a bit nuts, anyway.  He was bound over.  But I can’t give you the details of the business side of his life.  I knew there were quite a few threatening letters and some cases settled out of court, but you’ll have to get all that from someone else.  By the way, curiously enough I heard that that young fellow Greenleaf had been seen in the village a few days before Ridley’s death, but I really can’t think there’s any connection.  He was an untidy, rough fellow.  Not a bit like a writer, I thought, but I shouldn’t have imagined he’d go in for murder.”
Beef took out his watch.  “I think I’ve just got time to have another word with Fagg before I go for my dinner.  I shall be back this afternoon.  I’ve arranged to meet the Superintendent here about three o’clock.”
We found Fagg and his wife in the huge stone kitchen.  She was a little thin-lipped waspish woman who had nothing to say.  Fagg repeated his story of finding Ridley dead at six o’clock and, though Beef tried to suggest it was very unusual for him to rise so early, the only answer he got from Fagg was, “Well, it’s not every day you find your master dangling on a rope, is it?”
“You said no visitors came to the front door that night.  If someone outside did it, that person must have got in somehow,” Beef said.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Fagg replied.  “I’ve said all along it was a burglar, and I still think so.”
When Beef began to question him about Ridley’s unpopularity in the district and about other visitors who had been here, Fagg closed up like a clam, and, though we both felt he could have told us a lot more, it was obviously useless trying further at the moment.
“The only thing that would make him talk,” Beef said, as we left the house, after telling Lovelace we would be back to see the Superintendent after lunch, “is if we could get something on him.  I don’t think he had a hand in the murder, but I reckon he and that old witch of a wife of his know something.”
We lunched at the Shaven Crown, and when we drove up to the house again we could see a police car was already there.  We found the Superintendent in the room where the crime had been committed.  He was a big jovial man and seemed pleased to see Beef.
“My chief constable has decided to call in Scotland Yard,” he said, after greeting Beef and being introduced to me.  “I said in my report that I didn’t think it was a local job.  I can’t say I’m sorry.  It’s a devil of a case.”
“If Fagg is telling the truth,” Beef said, “the murderer must have either broken in somewhere or else Ridley let him in.”
“Looks as if he let him in.  The old boy was very keen on having everything locked up, and there’s no sign anywhere of windows being forced.  But, whoever it was, he hasn’t left a clue anywhere.  Not even a fingerprint.”
“There’s that little bundle of books,” Beef said:  “the secretary fellow doesn’t think they were here before the night Ridley was murdered.”
“There are so many blasted books around here I don’t see how he can tell.  Anyway, they are old ones and there are no names in them, except in two.  Then it’s the name of some old josser who died a couple of hundred years ago.  Even the brown paper’s got no marks on it, and the newspapers are a month old.  No, I’ve the inquest tomorrow, and after that the Yard fellow can have it all.  Pity it wasn’t suicide—nobody would miss him; but it seems to me when you start trying to find out which of his enemies did him in you might as well look for one particular pebble on the beach at Brighton.”
“Or Hastings,” Beef said, turning to me for the first time.  “Go and have a look at those books.  See what you make of them, and don’t forget what I said about the packing.”
I picked up the small bundle and glanced at the titles.  There was a two-volume edition of Gray’s Poems, Butler’s Hudibras, The Vicar of Wakefield, and some bound volumes of eighteenth-century plays.  Not a valuable lot, I thought, but pleasant early editions and clean calf bindings.  Some pencil price markings had been carefully erased and, as the Superintendent had said, the only names on the fly-leaves belonged to the eighteenth century.  Then, remembering Beef’s words, I had a look at the packing.  The brown paper was new and bore no marks except for the string, but when I unfolded the two sheets of newspaper which formed an inner wrapping I saw they were headed The Sussex Gazette, and dated 16th August.
“We might be able to trace where these books came from,” I said, not mentioning the newspaper, but determining to tackle Beef about that later.  “If they were bought from a shop, I expect we could find out where.”
“Shouldn’t be surprised if they were pinched,” the Superintendent said.  “The late Mr. Ridley wasn’t above doing a little quiet receiving, so I’ve heard, when it came to books.  I shouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t turn out that he had fixed to see someone that night who was bringing some books for him to buy.  Ridley lets him in.  They have a row over prices.  Ridley threatens to hand him over for stealing, and to shut his mouth the visitor throttles him.  Then he gets the wind up and tries to make it look like suicide.”
“What about the rope?” Beef asked.  “If it happened as you say, how did he come to have on him a nice long new piece of rope, just the right thickness—and length?”
“We don’t really know there wasn’t some in the gardener’s shed where he found the ladder.  We’ve only Fagg’s word for that.  Mr. Lovelace wouldn’t notice a thing like that.”
I was not so sure.  I did not think there was much that escaped that young man’s pale-blue eyes.
“By the way, Beef, I have found one thing I must shew you.” He produced a piece of plain folded notepaper.  “I found this among Ridley’s letters.  It looks like a childish threat and probably has nothing to do with the murder.  One of the locals sent it, I expect.  Unfortunately there’s no envelope.  Lovelace says he saw most of Ridley’s correspondence, but he was never shewn this.”
Beef took the paper and spread it out flat.  It was dated 6th September, four days before the murder.  Then followed large heavy print, “Don’t think you’ll get away with it, you little rat.  The day of reckoning is drawing near.”
“Looks like some kid’s prank,” I said, as I read the puerile threat and noted the roughly formed letters.  It was good notepaper, I noticed, but the top had been torn off.
Beef smiled and handed it back to the Superintendent.  “Thanks,” he said.  “One more thing to bear in mind.  When’s the fellow from Scotland Yard arriving?”
“He’s coming to see me in my office tonight,” the Superintendent replied.  “I’ve got to put him in the picture so that he can follow all the points at the inquest tomorrow.  He’ll be attending that so you can see him there.”
“Not me, I shan’t,” Beef said.  “I reckon I’ve seen all I want to down here for the moment.  It’ll be London for me tomorrow.”
We said goodbye to the Superintendent, and were just leaving when Lovelace came out.  “I hear you’re going,” he said as we went towards the car.  “I am disappointed.  I did so want to have a long talk about crime and detection.  Shall you be down again?”
Beef mumbled something about possibly, and we drove off.  “I wonder what he’s up to,” Beef said.  “Something I don’t quite trust there, and I’m usually not far out.”
“So it’s London tomorrow, Beef,” I said, as we drove to Cold Slaughter.
“Yes,” Beef replied, lighting his pipe.  “I want to learn a bit more about Mr. Edwin Ridley.  We’ll see that brother of his.  He should be able to tell us a bit.  Then there’s this publishing business of his.  Sounds a bit fishy with threatening letters and authors trying to commit suicide.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said.  “I know who’ll give us the whole story.  My literary agent, Michael Thorogood.  He knows all the publishers.  But have you given up the idea that it might be someone local?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” Beef said.  “From what I hear I can understand quite a few people round here wanting to wring his neck, but there’s a big step between wishing someone was out of the way and actually doing them in.”
“What about a row?” I said.  “Supposing someone like the M.F.H., Colonel Lethbridge, or the captain of the cricket team or any of the people he’d quarrelled with—supposing one of them called that night.  Ridley may have let them in.  They have a row, lose their tempers, start fighting, and whoever it was suddenly finds he’s throttled Ridley.  Could easily be done.  After all, Ridley was only a little rat of a man, I hear.”
Beef did not say anything but went on puffing away at his pipe.
“Well, it’s possible, isn’t it?” I said.  “Then, finding out what he’s done, the murderer fakes a suicide.  If it was a local man, he could easily go and fetch the rope.  After all, the coast was completely clear from dinner-time till six the next morning.”
“Well, we’ll see,” Beef said, in a rather pompous voice.  “You and the Superintendent have both made out a good case and I dare say we’ll find it happened something like that.  I still think I’d like to know a bit more about Ridley.  By the way,” he said, “in your theory how do you account for those books?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” I said.  “If they were brought by the murderer, they were probably his excuse to get an interview.  I expect whoever it was flattered Ridley to see him and get his opinion on some books.”
“And the newspaper from Sussex?” Beef asked.  “How does that fit in?”
“Do you really think it might have something to do with our other case?” I asked eagerly.
“It’s a funny coincidence.”
“But there are a hundred explanations,” I could not help saying.  “If these books were bought at a shop, that may have been the packing which the bookseller used.  He’d have books coming in from all over the place.”
We were entering Cold Slaughter now.
“What did you think of Ridley’s household?” I asked.  “Lovelace and the Faggs?  Do you think they had anything to do with the murder?”
“I don’t say I’m not interested in who did it and how it was done,” Beef replied, “but I’m much more interested to know why it was done.  You remember what the Inspector down at Hastings said.  Motive.  That’s the key to every murder.  And that’s why we’re off to London tomorrow to find out a bit more about Ridley.  Even if Ridley was murdered in a fit of temper, there must have been something pretty powerful behind it all to make a man get in such a rage.”
I drove the car into the courtyard of the Shaven Grown, and went up to my room.  I had a bath and sat down and made a few notes.  I thought I might possibly be able to use this case as a story.  It was a good setting.  It rather depended on how it was going to turn out.  What should I call it, I wondered.  Corpse in the Cotswolds ? . . . Body of a Bibliophile ?  Well, some title would come when I had written it.  I was sorry, in a way, to be leaving Gold Slaughter.  The weather had cleared and it looked as if it might be fine in the morning.  The Shaven Grown was comfortable enough, and when we had gone into the public bar the evening before, we had soon got on friendly terms with the locals, regulars mostly, and for once I had really enjoyed an evening’s darts.  There was none of the slick play of the pubs in a town.  It was a pleasant leisurely game where a man would pause in the middle of his throw to answer some question that had been asked.  And when each game was over and the beer bought—or in many cases it was rough cider—there was a friendly pause and a chat.
“Let Arthur play,” one would say.  “He hasn’t had a game all the evening.  I’ll stand down for a bit.”
Beef, I was pleased to see, was at home among these countrymen.  He suited his play to the company—a very different game from the one he played against the two racing touts at Lewes, who were only out to win a couple of cheap pints.
When I came down I found Beef alone in an empty bar.  “We don’t get many in before eight these days,” the landlord said.  “They can’t afford it, you know.  Ruinous these prices to the working man, especially in the country.  That’s really where the pub is most needed.  It’s a club and everything to these chaps.  Are you ready for your supper?”
Once again an excellent little meal was produced.  The landlord’s wife had been cook at one of the big houses in the district and everything was beautifully served.
“Pity we’ve got to leave this,” I said to Beef, when we were lighting up after supper.
“We’ll probably be back,” he replied.  “I must get my revenge on that postman who beat me last night.  He only comes on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so he won’t be in tonight.”
While we were drinking a pint before joining the players round the board, the landlord called Beef aside.
“There’s a chap here would like a word with you.  Of course they all know what you’re down here for.  Shall I bring him up?”
Beef agreed, and a young fellow was introduced to us as Bob Chapman.  “He’s chauffeur to Sir Henry Woodhouse, the local M.P.”  After Beef had bought him a drink and I had produced my cigarette-case, he seemed more at ease.  “I don’t know whether this is any good to you.  It may be nothing at all.  I haven’t mentioned anything to the police, because it really didn’t seem important enough.  Well, the night the gentleman at Bampton Court was done in, I was driving back with Sir Henry and his wife about midnight.  They’d been to a Conservative Dinner in Cheltenham.  I had to pass Bampton Court on the way.  A bit further on there’s a small lane that leads to the back of the house.  As I passed it I noticed a car parked about twenty yards down.  My boss and his wife wouldn’t see anything as they were sitting behind and had the small roof light on.  I thought it was funny at the time, but you know how these things are.  Sir Henry wanted to drive to London the following day and it went clean out of my mind till I heard about you gentlemen making enquiries about his death.”
Beef thanked him.  “You never know how these things work out.  ’Course, it may have nothing to do with the murder.  On the other hand it may.  You didn’t notice a number or anything?”
“It was too dark, I’m afraid, and there was no light on, but it looked like an old saloon Austin by the shape of it.  One thing I did see.  There was a star-shaped crack on the left of the rear window.  My headlight just caught it as I turned.  I hear you throw a pretty dart.  Shall we make up a four?”
“I will in a minute,” Beef replied.  “There’s just one more thing I want to enquire about.  Do you know anything about a chap called Greenleaf, who tried to commit suicide in Ridley’s grounds?”
“Yes, I know him.  He was supposed to have been seen near the village the day of the murder.  One of the women thought she recognised him.  This fellow was hiking, it seems.  He had a great rucksack on his back, but you know what some women are.  I shouldn’t stake too much on that story.  We never heard about it till after the murder.  You usually find stories like that cropping up after anything happens.  Look, they’re just finishing now,” he added, pointing to the score.  “What about it?”