I passed a restless night. It seemed to me as I fretted through the small hours that everyone was taking the disappearance of Freda Ducrow very calmly. I admitted that there could be quite ordinary explanations for it; she might for instance have decided not to meet Gulley and started to drive home, then stopped at some pub for a drink and having had too much for safe driving, have stayed the night. But it did not seem likely. Why should she have decided suddenly not to keep an appointment she had made only a few hours earlier? And would not the publican, in such a case, have found out who she was and telephoned? If her car had been involved in an accident we should have heard already.
Far more likely, I thought, that she had done the very foolish thing which Gabriel suggested—escaped to the Continent. Only someone in her state of nerves and unhappiness could have done something so stupid, for whether or not she was involved in the murder of Cosmo Ducrow it would avail her nothing.
It was at times like this that I found Beef most lethargic and exasperating. Surely Freda Ducrow’s absence should be of the deepest concern to him? Yet last night he had seemed to take it almost as a matter of course. I felt he should be doing something about it, not saying “Ah!” and “Well!” in his bumbling way.
At breakfast the silence became intolerable. Gulley ate nothing and I no more than a piece of toast, while Beef munched sausages and drank several cups of tea.
“No news?” he asked when he had finished. Gulley looked at him with disgust, and I said nothing. “Ah, well, I expect we shall hear something soon.”
Gray walked into the room soon after nine, having come down on an early train. He seemed to take Beef’s side and remarked cheerfully that he was sure Mrs. Ducrow would be home soon, or that we should hear from her.
“Old Wickham is a very sound chap and will have given her good advice. I’m sure she won’t have done anything rash.”
Gulley suggested that Gray should at least phone the solicitor to ask whether Freda had made any remark during their interview which might throw light on her subsequent actions, and Gray, rather as though he were humouring us, agreed to do so. When he came back from the phone, however, he had little to tell.
“She seemed quite calm when she left him. He got the impression that she was more upset about poor Cosmo’s death than she had shewn. She was really very fond of him. But of course her main anxiety was over Rudolf. He was able to reassure her on that score. She seemed almost cheerful when their interview ended, and asked old Wickham to come out here and see her soon.”
“Yes,” said Gulley. “But we all know how volatile she was. She might have changed her mood completely within an hour of leaving him. I think the best thing I can do is to go down to Folkover.”
“I can’t see what good that will do.”
Just then the telephone rang and in a few minutes Gabriel came in. We all looked anxiously towards him, but it was Beef whom he summoned.
“Inspector Stute on the ’phone,” he said.
Beef was out of the room for only a few moments but when he returned I could see that at last he was disturbed.
“Stute’s on his way up,” said Beef. “He says he has grave news for us.”
“Does that mean she is dead?” shouted Gulley. It was not pleasant to hear the hysteria in that usually lush and confident voice.
“I don’t know what it means,” returned Beef. “Mr. Gray, I think it would be as well if Mr. Rudolf Ducrow were present.”
“Of course. I’ll ’phone him.”
I was surprised when a few minutes later Gray returned to say that Rudolf was on his way up.
“He must have returned very late last night,” I observed.
I could see that Beef would have preferred that I should have kept this observation to myself. Gray turned to ask me what I meant and I related the story of our late and fruitless call at the lodge. No one seemed much pleased by this.
When Rudolf came in I felt inclined to ask him a few tactful questions about yesterday, since no one else seemed to think this necessary, but as soon as I turned to him I heard Beef clearing his throat in a marked manner and gathered that he had some reason for wishing me to say no more.
Gray gave Rudolf what information we had about Freda and I was astonished to notice that he, too, seemed unperturbed at first.
“After all, it won’t be the first time she has gone away unexpectedly,” he said. “You remember that occasion on which she suddenly went up to London and stayed the night without telling Cosmo? He was frantic about it.”
But when Gray came to the message from Stute, Rudolf also became serious.
“Sounds bad,” was all he said, however. Stute came in with Liphook and I could see from their faces that the news they brought was indeed grave. At least, I thought, it would be broken tactfully, for Stute is a man of breeding and would not blunder into an announcement of tragedy as Beef so often did.
“I’m afraid I have very bad news for you all,” he said.
We waited in silence. I could see that even he, who had investigated so much crime and dealt with so many terrible situations, hesitated now. “It’s about Mrs. Ducrow,” he went on quietly. “I am sorry to have to tell you that she is dead.”
“Good God!” It was Gulley who exclaimed, and I saw that he was pale and trembling.
Gray spoke quietly. “Will you please give us the details?”
“They are very tragic. This morning at seven o’clock a coastguard named Richard Pugh saw something which looked like wreckage on the beach near Greynose Head. He was on the cliff at the time and could only make out a dark shape beneath, but he decided at once to investigate. High tide last night was at seven forty-five and it would be high tide again at eight twenty-three. He hurried down to the gap and raced along the beach to get to the wreckage before the sea reached it and in time to return to the gap before he was himself cut off. He knew that he had only just time to do this, and did not wait to summon anyone.
“He found the wreckage to be that of a Hillman Minx car. Number GSG 117, which as you know was Mrs. Ducrow’s. In the wreckage, badly mutilated by the fall and quite dead, were the remains of the unfortunate lady. It was evident that the car had been driven over the edge of the cliff.
“Pugh had only time for a brief examination of the wrecked car and the corpse, but he is certain that the sea had not come up to it. At this point and at this time of year the water reaches the foot of the cliff but does not rise high on its face. Since the car was only a few yards from the cliff it must have been driven over at some time after about nine o’clock on the previous evening.”
I looked round the strained and serious faces about me, but learned nothing from them. There was a tense silence as Stute continued.
“Beside the lady was a broken bottle in the remains of which were still a few drops of whisky. Also her bag in which, since then, has been found a sum of money in Treasury notes.
“The coastguard did the best thing possible in the circumstances. The tide was approaching fast now and he had only time to extricate the body from the wreckage and by an effort, which must have been considerable and for which he merits praise, carry it to the gap. It is now being examined.”
“What about the car?” asked Beef.
“Inspector Forster has gone down and will make an examination as soon as he can reach it. By then, of course, the sea will have been over it.”
Gulley seemed bewildered. “Do you mean that Mrs. Ducrow committed suicide?” he asked.
“I do not mean any more than I have said, Major Gulley. Her car was driven over the edge of the cliff with her at the wheel sometime after, say eight forty-five last night.”
Gray spoke rather fiercely.
“I do not believe that Freda Ducrow would kill herself,” he said.
“Why not, Mr. Gray?”
“She was not that kind of woman.”
“But I understand that she has repeatedly threatened to do so?”
“She talked foolishly, but that’s a very different thing.”
“Then you think it was an accident or a murder?”
“I don’t believe it was suicide. Have you any further information?”
“The tracks are quite clear where she left the road but they cannot be traced clearly across the springy grass of the downs. Nothing that she carried gives us much information. We have not yet been able to trace anyone who saw her car or her at any time yesterday evening.” Stute turned to Rudolf. “Do you believe that Mrs. Ducrow may have committed suicide?” he asked.
“No. Frankly, I don’t.”
“You seem to be unanimous about that. It’s strange that when a lady of her rather excitable nature, who is known to have drinking bouts and to be depressed and worried, is found in circumstances which point to suicide, you should be so sure that she did not kill herself. What do you think, Beef?”
Now was Beef’s chance to shew the keen intelligence and quick instincts with which I had always credited him. I wanted him to say something which would impress Stute and the others. But he shook his head.
“I don’t know what to think,” he moaned. “Upon my word I don’t. Proper puzzler, isn’t it?”
“By which I suppose he means that he is going to startle us presently,” said Stute sarcastically. “Now, I should just like to know where you all were yesterday evening between, say, six and ten. Major Gulley?”
“You know. I’ve told you. At the Marina Palace till nine, waiting for Mrs. Ducrow. The barman will remember me. After that round at the police station.”
“I took a bus to Cinderhurst last night. Went to the pictures there.”
“What time did you come out?”
“I don’t know. After ten.”
“How did you get home?”
“No idea. Past midnight.”
“See anyone who would remember you?”
“Not that I remember. You wouldn’t expect me to have an alibi though, would you, Inspector?”
“No,” said Stute sharply. “Now, Mr. Gray?”
“I was in London yesterday.”
“Oh, yes. I was forgetting. Where was Gabriel?”
“He was in Folkover. Came home on the last bus, the nine forty-five from there.”
“At home. Having a row with the wife.”
“What on earth have I got to do with it?”
“Nothing, I hope. But I’d just like to make the check complete.”
“Oh, very well. I was in my flat in London.”
“What about your wife, Mr. Ducrow?”
“I don’t know. She left me yesterday. Took her dogs and went.”
“Dear, dear,” said Stute. “You none of you believe it’s suicide yet none of you could have been anywhere near Mrs. Ducrow at the time. We shall have to see what the Coroner thinks.”