As the reader may have guessed, the address 18 Peckham Avenue, Putney Common is an imaginary one. I have invented it to avoid revealing where Miss Esmeralda Tobyn was living at this time, for the owners of the house in which we found her may have been totally unaware of the somewhat disreputable character of the place. Suffice it to say that it was in one of the south-western postal areas, a large building which may once have been the home of a Victorian city man and was now a honeycomb of small flats and apartments.
On the second floor we found the name for which we were looking, written on a postcard which had been pinned to a door. Beef gave a peremptory knock.
I was expecting Miss Tobyn to be as raffish and slatternly as the house, but it was a neat well-dressed young woman of about twenty-eight who opened the door. I saw that she was rather attractive and she shewed no signs of hurry or dismay on seeing two strangers.
“Good morning,” said Beef. I thought at first that he would be content with this greeting and not add one of his tactless crudities, but I was mistaken. “I’ve come about the murder,” he said.
Miss Tobyn remained motionless. She shewed no disposition to bluster or panic. She did not cry. “What murder?” or dramatically ask what any murder had to do with her. She simply waited.
“I understand you were with Major Gulley that evening.”
“I’ve gone into all that with Chief Inspector Stute.”
“I know you have. But I have been retained by the family to make some further enquiries, and there are a few questions I should like to ask you. My name is Beef. This is Mr. Townsend.”
“Come in, then.”
We entered a sitting-room from which another door led into a bedroom, I guessed. The room was quite nicely furnished, and I noticed some fresh chrysanthemums on a table.
“This is really rather a bore,” said Miss Tobyn. “I scarcely knew the man.”
“No. No. I never met any of them. I mean the man you call Gulley.”
“What did you call him?”
“He told me his name was D’Agincourt and that he worked at the B.B.C. It seemed quite likely. If there was a man called D’Agincourt he almost certainly would work at the B.B.C., and the voice sounded familiar, somehow.”
“I know what you mean,” admitted Beef. “How long had you been acquainted with him?”
“About three months, I should think.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“At a club called the Surly Tapster. I was told he positively haunted the place.”
“Seemed to have plenty of money?”
“Bags of it. Needed it, too, with a moustache like that.”
“You found him unattractive?”
“Actually, no. I found him rather a cup in a bizarre sort of way. And madly generous.”
“You spent a number of evenings with him?”
“Yes. Perhaps a dozen in all.”
“But he never mentioned that he lived in Kent or that he was employed as secretary and agent by Mr. Cosmo Ducrow?”
Beef had been talking rather casually. Now he rounded on Miss Tobyn and snapped out his next question.
“When did you first hear the name Ducrow?”
“Er . . . I suppose when it appeared in the newspapers.”
“Major Gulley never mentioned it?”
They stared at one another defiantly. At last the tension was broken by a suggestion from the young woman that we should have a drink.
“I don’t mind,” said Beef and watched her bring bottles from a cupboard.
“You’ll excuse me asking,” said Beef clumsily, “but have you got some job or profession, Miss Tobyn?”
She smiled. “This house does give a bad impression,” she said. “I have a small income of my own and I have a job.”
“May I ask what?”
“What, wreathes and that?”
She looked to me for sympathy, and I felt impelled to explain.
“Really, Beef, there are times when you shew yourself lamentably ignorant. The art of flower arrangement has gone far beyond ‘wreaths and that’, as you put it, and has become a full-time occupation for many talented people. Miss Constance Spry has founded a school . . .”
“You mean, just how to arrange flowers in vases?”
Miss Tobyn smiled. “If you like. Anyway that’s my job. I live here because I can find nowhere else. It’s not really quite so tartish as it looks.”
Beef coughed and picked up his notebook. “Now we come to the night of the twelfth,” he said severely.
“Need we? Really? I have told the police all that.”
“Not quite all. Miss Tobyn, surely? At what time did you meet Major Gulley?”
“He called for me here in that old chariot of his. About seven, I think. We had a drink here and left some time after eight.”
“Where did you dine?”
“At the Cochon d’Or.”
“The Cochon d’Or has probably the best cuisine in London,” I tried to explain to Beef.
“All right. All right. What then?”
“Then, Sergeant Beef,” said Miss Tobyn with understandable defiance. “I accompanied Mr. D’Agincourt to his flat in Montrevor House.”
“How long were you there?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not a time-table and I do not book down my movements.”
Beef was unruffled. “All right. Say three or four hours. What then?”
“Mr. D’Agincourt drove me home.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I think you do. Miss Tobyn. What’s more, for everyone’s sake, I think it would be best if you told me the truth now.”
The girl was silent. The light from the window was full on her and I thought she looked rather beautiful as she stared at Beef with round troubled eyes. Her hair was of an unusual shade of chestnut, and she had very good teeth. I remember that during those few moments I was hoping that she was not going to become deeply involved in this case.
“As a matter of fact,” she said slowly, “I wanted to do so a long time ago but Poppy D’Agincourt was against it. He said there was no need for anyone to know, ever, and he didn’t want me dragged in. He’s rather an old pet, really, though I wouldn’t trust him far in money matters.”
She then told us a surprising story. Gulley, or Poppy as she called him, had told her about the cottage he was going to move into and had suggested some time ago that she should come and live there. It had two acres which could be used for intensive flower-growing, and she had long had the idea of moving out of town and growing her own flowers then perhaps opening a tiny shop somewhere in the West End from which she could get orders for flower decorations. Gulley had promised her to build a glasshouse.
At this point Beef interrupted to ask rudely which of them was married already, to which she replied that actually both were, but Gulley’s wife was in South Africa and she had not seen her husband for years.
On the night of the 12th, as they were walking to the car from Montrevor House, Gulley suddenly had an inspiration and asked why she did not drive down with him now and stay in the cottage for a few days to see how she liked it. She had no engagements for the next two days and liked doing things on impulse. In a few minutes they were in the Lagonda on their way to Hokestones. They must have left London, she thought, at about three or half-past.
During the last twenty miles of their journey they had the road entirely to themselves until they were approaching the village of Hawden. Then they saw a young policeman in uniform pushing a bicycle. They entered the drive because, although there was another road to the cottage, Gulley had to get the keys from his room. They were going to stop some way from the house while he slipped in to get them. But when they came round a bend of the drive the headlights of the car shewed them what looked like a man lying on the ground beside a seat and near a small pavilion.
Miss Tobyn faltered a little here, and I could see that she was greatly distressed by the recollection of what had taken place. It appeared that Gulley had no torch, but left the headlights of the car on while he went across to investigate. When he came back he was in what she now described as a “dreadful state”. He told her it was Cosmo Ducrow, his employer, and that he had been murdered. The back of his skull had been smashed right in—a horrible sight.
She begged him to go straight to the police. She wished now that she had made him do so. But Gulley did not want her drawn into this. Besides, as he said, he was in some kind of trouble with Ducrow and might be suspected himself. When she pointed out that she could give evidence to confute any suggestion of that, he had grown all the more panicky and said they must drive straight back to London. He would take her to her flat first then get into Montrevor House without being seen and no one would know they had been anywhere near Hokestones.
They drove back very fast. She saw the policeman again but did not expect him to be able to identify the car. She supposed the police must have traced her by making enquiries at the Surly Tapster. That was really all. It was perfectly certain that Gulley could have had nothing to do with the murder for he had never been out of her sight that evening.
She took a long stiff drink of gin and tonic and sat back to wait for what Beef would say.
Beef, however, had become cagey, and after muttering “Very interesting,” or something of the sort, seemed engrossed in his notes. He only asked Miss Tobyn one other question.
“Can you play croquet?”
“Used to, when I was a kid,” she replied. “It must be years since I’ve had a mallet in my hands.”
Just then the telephone rang and she picked up the receiver, which was in the room we occupied, close to me. I could catch some of the caller’s words as well as her own and soon gathered that it was Gulley. He had discovered or guessed that we were coming to see her and had phoned to beg her to say nothing, but she admitted that she had already told us. “I’m sure it’s best,” she added. Gulley evidently did not think so and there was a long argument during which Beef helped himself to another drink.
When we had left the house Beef said gravely: “I think we had better get back to Hawden as soon as possible.”
I pointed out that I must call at my flat and he remembered that he had intended to go home.
“But I don’t want to be away longer than we can help,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to be responsible for what may happen if we’re not on the spot.”
This seemed to me to be rather self-important, and I suggested that we should go down the following morning.
“No, no,” said Beef impatiently. “This evening at the latest. What time is there a train?”
I can never be quite sure with Beef. He was capable of dragging me back sooner than I wanted to go merely so that he could play in some wretched game of darts. On the other hand, there might be genuine urgency in the matter.
“There’s a good train at ten-four,” I said. “I’ll meet you at Victoria.”
That seemed only partially to satisfy him, but he made no further protest.
“How did you know she was with Gulley at Hokestones that night?”
“I didn’t, for certain. But why else should he have driven back to London? That is, if there’s any truth in the story at all.”