Neck and Neck
A breakfast Vincent announced that he was going back to his school, Penshurst, for a few days to arrange matters about his new House. The school was due to open in ten days and there was a great deal to do.
“I’ve told the Inspector,” Vincent said. “Let’s see, it’s Thursday today,” he went on glancing at the paper. “I’ll be back Saturday evening.”
Edith was not down and Ellen told us that she was having breakfast in her room. I did not say anything to Vincent about the events of the night before. He looked as if he had enough on his mind already. It was awkward for him, I realised. There would be the unpleasant publicity for one thing, just as he was taking over a House at Penshurst and he must have a hundred details to arrange.
Beef arrived soon after Vincent had been driven off to the station and I told him at once what I had seen the evening before.
“I’ll ask the Inspector about that cupboard. Bet you he’s had it open with a skeleton key. I think I’ll just stay around the house today and have a word with your aunt’s servants. I don’t want a proper interview with them. Just chat to them at their jobs. You can fix it for me.”
“I think we’d better start with Ellen, the parlourmaid,” I replied, and rang the bell.
“Ellen,” I said, when she came into the room, “this is Sergeant Beef. He’s a private detective and friend of mine. He’s investigating your mistress’s death on our behalf so I want you to give him all the help you can.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered unsmilingly. I had always respected rather than liked Ellen. She had not altered in the last twenty years. She was an ardent chapelgoer and carried a general air of disapproval around with her, so unlike the cook, Mary, for while Ellen was tall, spare and erect, with thin pointed features, Mary was short and fat with a round red good-natured face. She had loved to spoil us as kids. “Mary,” Ellen used to say, “you know those boys shouldn’t be in the kitchen. What would the Missus say? And they’ll spoil their lunch with all those new cakes . . .”
“Never mind, Ellen, they’re only young once. Why, I remember . . .” and Mary would launch into a long racy tale of her girlhood at Portsmouth, of her father and brothers in the Navy, while Ellen would stalk off, muttering. that she had work to do.
“Good morning, Miss,” Beef began. “Have a seat. There are a few things I’d like to know about. First I’d like to hear all about the visit Miss Fielding’s other nephew paid her back in August. Was she expecting him?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Beef,” Ellen replied. “Miss Fielding told Mary and me that Mr. Gupp was coming to stay for a few days and to get a room ready. That was why we was so surprised he went off the day after he arrived. He didn’t even stop for lunch, and Miss Fielding never came into the hall to see him off. We thought it funny at the time.”
“Anything else you noticed?” Beef went on.
“Well, there was. Miss Fielding seemed ever so upset all that day, and about tea-time Mr. Moneypenny called. He used to call to see Miss Fielding every few months, you know. We thought perhaps she wouldn’t want to talk business then, but she saw him. Mary and me was called in later to witness her signature and we said at the time that Mr. Hilton hadn’t done himself any good. But we never thought he’d be cut right out like that. She’d always been the same to her three nephews. What she gave one she gave the others. You know that, Mr. Lionel.”
“You never heard any row between them, did you?” Beef asked.
“Nothing like that,” Ellen replied, shaking her head. “When I took her up her cup of Ovaltine in bed, she looked a bit pale and worried like.” ‘Ellen, I’ll have one of my sleeping tablets tonight,’ she said, and gave me the key to her medicine cupboard. I went and fetched her the bottle. ‘Oh dear,’ she said to me, ‘what a few there are left. I didn’t realise I was taking so many. Remind me to get some more tomorrow,’ and I did.”
Beef paused, fingering his ginger moustache.
“Now let’s get on to the day of her death. I know you’ve given the Inspector all the facts, but perhaps there are one or two little things you may have noticed, Miss, since you knew Miss Fielding such a long time.”
Beef certainly seemed to be getting along much better with Ellen than I had foreseen. I had rather felt that I should have to help him overcome Ellen’s reticence, but as it was they both seemed to have forgotten me.
“Notice anything queer about her the day before or when she got up?”
“No, Mr. Beef. She was just the same. She seemed to have forgotten her upset over Mr. Hilton, especially after Mr. Vincent and you, sir,” Ellen replied, turning to me, “had been staying for a few days. She got up as usual, read prayers, and had her breakfast. Miss Edith and Mr. Vincent were there, and they all seemed happy together. After breakfast the Missus went as usual to the morning-room, which I always did before breakfast, ready for her. It was just like any other day. That’s why it came as such a shock . . .”
“About them visitors. You let ’em in, I suppose? Mind if I smoke here?” Beef started filling his pipe.
“Yes, I opened the front door to them and showed them in. Let me see now. The vicar was the first. About eleven o’clock . . . I remember the time as I’d just brought in the tray with the sherry decanter and the glasses. He didn’t stay long, and then the lady came to collect for some missionary society. I didn’t know her face, but she seemed to know all about Miss Fielding. ‘I was told I should find her in at this time,’ she said and followed me in as I went to announce her. She stayed quite a time. In fact the Misses Graves had already arrived when she left, and no sooner had she gone when Miss Pinhole, who did a lot of dressmaking for Miss Fielding, rang the bell. It was nearly twelve o’clock by the time she was free from all her visitors, because I remember her saying, ‘I’ve just got time to take Spot for a nice run before lunch.’ ”
“Sure there was no one else?” Beef asked. Ellen thought for a moment. “Well, of course, Miss Edith was in and out all the morning, and Raikes, that’s Cook’s husband—was cleaning the windows. But not what you’d call visitors.”
“How many of them had a drink?”
“All six glasses had been used, I noticed, when I fetched the tray for the Inspector,” Ellen replied, “but I’m afraid I don’t know who used them. The Missus, Miss Edith and the two Misses Graves always liked a glass in the morning, and I can’t see Miss Pinhole refusing if she had a chance. Sometimes the vicar did, sometimes he didn’t. The charity lady did because I heard her thanking Miss Fielding for her generous contribution and for the delicious sherry. ‘Such an unexpected treat,’ she said, but I wondered whether she’d heard about Miss Fielding’s sherry before ever she came.”
I saw Beef make a few notes at this point, and then he went on to ask about lunch (or dinner as he called it). Ellen could offer no further details than she had given to the Inspector. All three, Miss Fielding, Vincent and Edith, had the same food, and the kitchen staff also—vegetable soup, fried fillets of plaice, and some fruit to follow. No fresh facts came from her recital of the events leading up to my aunt’s death, and Beef, after thanking her, let Ellen go.
“Who’s this fellow Raikes?” Beef asked, as soon as Ellen had shut the door. I told him all I knew of Mary’s husband. Tom Raikes had been quite a hero of ours when we were young. He was always full of life and had many accomplishments that appealed to us boys. He was a bit of a ventriloquist, and could do conjuring tricks and card tricks that would hold us spellbound. He was a good-looking fellow then, but, as we learnt later, he never kept his jobs. When he was short of money, which was frequently, he used to come back to Mary, and my aunt, who had a weak spot for him, allowed him to stay with Mary until he found another. For some time now he had been acting as bookmaker’s clerk, Mary had told us, and as he was away most of the time he appeared to be earning a living.
Beef nodded thoughtfully. “We’ll have a word or two with him some time. Better find out what pub he uses,” was his only comment.
We were just wandering through the hall on the way to the garden when I saw Edith Payne coming downstairs. She looked pale and ill and I asked at once after her headache.
“Oh, it’s better, thank you, Lionel,” she replied nervously. “I must really try and pull myself together today. So much to do.” She began to edge away towards the kitchen. Beef nudged me. “Want to talk to her now, while she’s scared,” he whispered.
“Edith,” I called after her. “I don’t think you’ve met Sergeant Beef, who is looking into aunt’s death for us.”
“Morning, Miss,” Beef said. “Could you spare me a few moments?” Without waiting for her reply he got home his first question. “Now what’s all this about a missing key?” he began, rather brusquely I thought.
Edith looked across at me accusingly, her eyes behind the thick lenses like pin-points.
“It’s all right, Edith,” I reassured her, “I haven’t told the police. Sergeant Beef is acting for us. I’m sure we all want to know the truth about Aunt Aurora’s death. It would be awful for any of us to go on being suspected. You must tell Sergeant Beef everything.”
Edith did not answer for a moment, and then, seeming to pull herself together, she began to speak. “I suppose, Sergeant, that Mr. Townsend told you that he saw me last night trying to open the medicine cupboard. I had a terrible headache and I wanted some aspirin. I was foolish not to speak out at the beginning and tell the Inspector I had lost the key of the cupboard when he asked about it. You see I had taken that particular key off Aunt Aurora’s ring—they all had little ivory labels, you know—and I was going to get another made by a locksmith. The first-aid equipment was kept there and I thought I ought to have a duplicate key in case of an accident.”
“Did you speak to Miss Fielding about this?” Beef asked.
“I didn’t want to worry her with unnecessary details. I thought I could put it back before it was . . . needed.”
“When was this?” Beef questioned.
“The day before Aunt Aurora died. I took the key off the ring and meant to take it that afternoon. When I tried to find it, I couldn’t. I must have dropped it in the garden somewhere. Then that awful afternoon when Aunt died, Doctor Rowley wanted something out of the medicine cupboard, and of course the key couldn’t be found. Doctor Rowley must have told the Inspector, because he asked me about the key. I was frightened then and told him I didn’t know anything about it. I’ve been worried ever since. Lionel, do get Sergeant Beef to explain it all to the Inspector.”
Beef said that he would be speaking to Inspector Arnold about a lot of things and would bear her story in mind.
“Did you have a glass of sherry with her the morning Miss Fielding died?” Beef asked.
“Oh yes, Sergeant. I remember distinctly. I came in when the Misses Graves were there to ask Miss Fielding something and had a glass. I remember wondering, with all those visitors, whether there would be enough clean glasses.”
“I think I’d like to see that decanter,” Beef went on. “Supposing you have it sent in just as Miss Fielding did.”
“Certainly, Sergeant,” Edith said. She seemed more at ease now and turned to leave the room.
“Full, of course,” Beef added, and winked at me. “Dry work all this questioning,” he added. “It’s just about eleven now. I feel I need something.”
When Ellen had brought in the tray, Beef filled two glasses and sipped his noisily. “Too sweet, this stuff, for me, but it’s better than nothing,” he said, but I noticed that he was refilling his glass. “Let’s see now,” Beef said, getting out his notebook. “We’ve seen Ellen and Edith Payne. That leaves Mary and Tom Raikes and young Charlie Raikes, their son, and the gardener.”
“I don’t think you need worry about the gardener because he only comes daily and never enters the house. I don’t think young Charlie could help you much. He’s always out in the garage tinkering with the car or the motor-cycle my aunt bought him. However,” I said, “Mary will be busy now so we’ll just wander round the garden and the outbuildings. I should like some fresh air before lunch.”
Sergeant Beef got up, gave one reluctant glance at the decanter of sherry still three-quarters full, and followed me through the french windows into the garden. It was pleasant to be out on this warm September morning. Only dahlias and giant sunflowers seemed still to be in bloom, with here and there an occasional late rose. The garden sloped away from the back of the house and one could see the town of Hastings a mass of roofs, below. Beyond, merging imperceptibly into one another, stretched sea and sky. As we came into the courtyard, around which were built the old stables now used as a garage, potting shed, coal-shed and other domestic offices, I saw young Charlie talking to his mother through the kitchen-window. Mary Raikes came out through the kitchen door as we approached and I introduced Sergeant Beef.
“How do you do, Mrs. Raikes,” Beef began. “This your lad? I don’t think I need trouble you two. It’s your husband I’d like a few words with. Know where I can find him?”
“My husband, Sergeant?” Mary’s usually beaming round face looked troubled. “He went away after the funeral. I don’t know where, but he said he’d be home tonight.”
“What pub’s he use, Charlie?” Beef asked Mary’s good-looking young son. Charlie blushed slightly.
“King and Queen in Old Town Road,” Charlie replied. “Tell him I’ll look for him there about eight-thirty,” Beef told the young chauffeur. “Public bar,” he added.
Beef smiled as he walked away. “Guessed he was a booser when I heard about him. Well, I think that about covers all those in the house. I haven’t heard what you were doing all that day.”
I repeated the story I had told Inspector Arnold, but Beef did not seem to be listening.
“There’s the Inspector,” he interrupted. “I must have a few words with him.” He left me and joined the Inspector, who was going towards his car.
I went back into the house, thinking over what we had heard that morning. It had often struck me in detective stories how, the moment a crime was committed and the police appeared, everybody seemed to have something to hide. I used to think this was unnatural, but now I realised the truth of it. Everyone, even my brother, seemed to have changed since my aunt’s death. Nobody was behaving naturally, even such open-hearted people as Mary and her son. It was, I supposed, the searchlight that was suddenly thrown on all our lives. Why, even I had my little secret.
Some twenty minutes later Beef came back to the house. “Know that missing key?” he said. “Know where the police found it? Well, I’ll tell you, but I shouldn’t really. Hidden on the top of a big wardrobe in your brother’s room. Now don’t say nothing to anyone. He’s a smart fellow, that Inspector.”
I was trying to think what this piece of information meant when Beef spoke again.
“That alibi of your cousin Hilton’s is cast-iron. Can’t be broken, says the Inspector. Still, I must have a word with him sometime. I still think he knows a bit more than he says. Well, I must go and get my dinner.”
After lunch I was just sitting down to do The Times crossword when Edith Payne came into the room.
“Lionel, could you let me have some money for housekeeping? I’ve been using some of my own, but I’ve run short. Auntie always gave me money weekly on Wednesdays or Thursdays, but of course. . . .”
I took out my wallet and gave her a few pounds. When she had gone, I began to wonder whether a check had been made by the police as to whether anything was missing. The police had not been to the house all day, so I telephoned to the station and asked for Inspector Arnold. When I explained what had occurred to me he answered at once.
“Yes, Mr. Townsend, that’s all being looked after. Miss Payne went through your aunt’s jewellery with us and nothing was missing. We haven’t yet been able to trace what your aunt did with the twenty pounds she drew from the bank the day before her death. No doubt that was partly for housekeeping.”
“Does Sergeant Beef know about this?” I asked him. “One of the first things he asked me,” the Inspector replied. “We don’t miss much, Mr. Townsend. Everything is checked up.”
I did not altogether like his tone of voice, but he had rung off before I could think of anything to say. I returned to my crossword, but kept wondering what my aunt had done with the twenty pounds. Blackmail? I remembered so often reading in detective stories of a cheque for several hundred having been drawn for cash shortly before a murder by the victim and to discovering that blackmail had been going on for months, but here in real life I could not think of anyone less likely to be a victim of blackmail (unless some of the demands on my aunt for charity came vaguely under that heading) than Aunt Aurora.
I had just solved a clue to finish the top right corner of the crossword (Not a wild party in a gondola. 8 and 5, turned out to be Venetian Blind) when Beef returned. I at once asked him about the missing money. “Oh, that,” he said. “It may not be anything to do with the murder. I’ve lots of things to clear up yet besides that. I’d like to know what’s happening between that Miss Payne and your brother. . . .”
“But,” I protested strongly, “there’s nothing going on between them. They hardly speak to one another.”
“That’s what I mean,” Beef replied. “It’s like the old Sherlock Holmes gag of the behaviour of the dog in the night. A week ago, when you were staying here, you said they was as thick as thieves. Now they hardly seem to look at one another. There’s something funny there, but I’ll find out. The cook—what’s her name?—Mary Raikes, and young Charlie didn’t look too happy this morning when we came on them suddenly in the yard. Then there’s the key of the medicine chest. Oh yes,” Beef went on, puffing at his pipe, “there are lots of puzzles in this case, but I think I begin to see the wood from the trees.”
“I’m very glad you do, Beef,” I said. “It’s very worrying for us, you know. This is not just one of our ordinary cases where it’s only question of your reputation to keep up. My brother and I are in a very awkward position. . . .”
“You’re telling me,” Beef said, using an unaccustomed Americanism. He seemed to be pleased with it and repeated it thoughtfully. “You’re telling me.”