The scene that followed was of course a painful one. The men and women gathered were, as I reflected, gentlefolk. Even if a murderer was among them they were people of breeding, and although they might have become accustomed to seeing a certain excess when Mrs. Ducrow was alive, yet the sight of Beef, stupefied with beer and stumbling towards a seat, to them could be nothing less than shocking. His voice was thick and he laughed too much.
“Sorry if I’m late for dinner,” he said. “I’ve had my bit of bread and cheese already. The truth of it is this case has been a bit too much for me. Well, it is too much, isn’t it?
“I was going to ask you all a lot of questions, but I don’t think I will now. You’ll only say it couldn’t be any of you. Yet I know and you know and the police know that there’s a murderer in this house.”
“You’re drunk,” said Ernest Wickham. “Little bit,” admitted Beef with horrible coyness. “Just a little bit. Not drunk, exactly. Cheerful. I don’t want to do any more work tonight though. I’ve worked hard enough on this case. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this murderer’s going to be a bit too much for us. I don’t see how we’re ever going to get a conviction. I know who it is and tomorrow I’m going to make my report to the police. I hoped to substantiate it with a few things some of you could tell me tonight, but what’s the good? You’re all such nice people that you can’t believe it of anyone you know. So I’m not going to ask you any questions at all. I’m going to bed.”
His head seemed to droop forward and his eyes were half closed.
“This is a most disgraceful exhibition,” said Wickham.
“Not really,” went on Beef. “If you know as much about this case as I do you’d want to get drunk. Get drunk and forget about human nature for a bit. Mean, cunning, cruel, human nature. I’ve seen a bit of it in my life—I’ve never seen it lower than I do now. Drunk? It’s a wonder I’m not paralytic!”
“Mr. Gray,” I said. “I feel I ought to apologize . . .”
But Beef would not let me finish. “There’s nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They ought to be only too glad I’m not going to ask them questions. There isn’t one of them who hasn’t got something to hide. There isn’t anybody anywhere who hasn’t. I would have asked questions, just to tidy up the case. But I’m sick of it now. I’ve had enough. I’m going to bed instead of asking questions.”
Zena Ducrow watching the unhappy Beef, seemed to think that there was entertainment in his condition.
“What sort of questions were you going to ask?” she demanded.
“Never mind now. I’m too tired and too browned off with murder.”
I saw the danger of his talking while he was in this condition and said hastily: “If you’re tired. Beef, you had better do as you say and take yourself off to bed.”
This, of course, made him obstinate, and when Zena repeated, “What sort of questions would they have been?” he looked up muzzily.
“I wanted to know, for instance, which one of you tried to burn a croquet mallet on the night of the twelfth. Not that I don’t know already, but I should like to have seen how you answered that.”
“But the croquet mallet used to kill Cosmo was found beside him next morning,” said Rudolf, staring hard at Beef.
Beef ignored him. “Then I’d like to have asked about the two people who passed the Gabriels’ door together at twenty past twelve that night. I know who they were all right, but I wondered how many of you did. But most of all I wanted to ask how Rudolf’s car came to be in a car park at Folkover on the day that Mrs. Ducrow died. Just little things I wanted to know about.”
“My car!” shouted Rudolf. “You know that my car had been stolen!”
Beef looked up tipsily. “I know a lot of things. I was employed to find out who killed Cosmo Ducrow, and I have found out. I was going to tell you all this evening. I’d made arrangements for the big moment when you would hear at last which was the murderer among you. It seemed to be the proper thing to do—all the best detectives believe in it. But I’ve been told it’s something you call ‘corny’ to do that, so we’ll leave it till tomorrow. What about another little drink just to pull me together?”
“He’s had quite enough,” I said anxiously to Esmeralda.
“You’re telling me,” she replied.
Gulley gave Beef a weak whisky-and-water. There was no thought now of letting him go, for intoxicated as he was, he still had the knowledge we all sought. “You mean,” said Gulley, “that although you know the truth you are not going to tell us?”
“Not tonight,” said Beef. “Wouldn’t do. I’ll make my report to Chief Inspector Stute in the morning.”
“I would point out,” said Theo Gray, “that you are no longer in the police force. Surely your report should first be made to us?”
“Perhaps. But I’m too tired tonight, and it’s too complicated. I couldn’t get you all to see it. To explain all the details of a murder and a suicide . . .”
“So Freda wasn’t murdered!” broke in Rudolf. “How can you possibly know that?”
Beef looked sheepish. “I’m talking too much,” he said. “And I’m taking up too much of everybody’s time. Why, it’s twenty to nine!”
At first this sleepy remark did not register with me for Beef did not look in my direction when he made it. Then suddenly with a feeling of guilt I remembered. In ten minutes’ time I was due to be in concealment on the roof with the two policemen who were even now waiting in my bedroom. But I realized that since I had never anticipated our still being gathered in one room when the time came, I had no excuse ready.
I stood up and cast about for something to say. “I wonder if you would mind . . .” I began. “Perhaps I might ask . . .”
Beef gave his vulgar guffaw. “Why don’t you say what you want?” he asked. “It’s only human, isn’t it?”
With flaming cheeks I almost ran from the room. In spite of this appalling piece of vulgarity I tried to convince myself that Beef was not as drunk as he appeared. Unless it had been by chance he had effectively reminded me of my appointment and although his last remark to me had been in the worst possible taste it had served, I had to own, to get me out of the room in such a way that no one would suspect an ulterior motive in my departure. Yet his appearance of drunkenness could not be wholly assumed. The truth, I guessed, lay half way between the extremes. He was not drunk enough to forget his arrangements but too drunk to carry them out.
I found Liphook and Constable Spender-Hennessy in my bedroom, their faces rather blank.
“Beef’s drunk,” I told them.
“Oh, no! ” said the young constable. “But this is too much!”
“I’m afraid so. But he may not be too drunk to carry out his plan, whatever it was. I tried to get something to drink for you fellows, but unfortunately I was caught in the act. Well, we’d better get up on the roof, hadn’t we?”
Inspector Liphook seemed to regard the whole thing as childish nonsense and I was more than half inclined to agree with him. Once again I vowed that I would not face the humiliations and difficulties which came from my association with Beef any more after this case was finished. I seemed to have to go from place to place excusing him, trying to defend him, till I looked nearly as foolish as he did. With a wry smile I thought that this evening I had been his apologist first with the suspects and now with the police.
I cautiously opened the door and listened. Down below I could hear a hum of voices from behind the closed door of the room I had left, with Beef’s raucous voice audible among them. A baize door cut off the kitchen so I could hear nothing of the Gabriels and Duntons. The rest of the house seemed still and silent. I beckoned to the two men, then led the way along the passage to the staircase leading to the attic floor. In a few minutes the three of us were standing on the bare boards of the upper landing. I pointed to the wooden steps.
I felt a certain thrill of excitement as we pulled back the bolts of the upright door at the head of this and crawled out on to the roof. Even if none of the exciting things promised by Beef were to materialize, it was something to be out here in the bright moonlight waiting. Far below us we could see the drive and we knew that the terrace was round the corner of the house. We were not too late in taking up our position for as we settled down I could see that it was just nine minutes to nine. Silence fell.
Beef had given a characteristic answer when Liphook had asked him what we were to expect. “Developments” he had said, no doubt to cover his own uncertainty, and had added “especially on the other wing”. I felt that although the event he hoped for would probably take place on the roof, it would be as well to keep an eye on the grounds below us as well and while remaining concealed I looked over the parapet. I could see down into the garage yard and kitchen garden, but although the moonlight made sharp black and silver outlines, it was impossible to distinguish details. Suddenly I knew that my vigil was rewarded, for a streak of yellow light fell across the yard from the back door and someone emerged. I tried hard to identify him and felt pretty certain that I had done so correctly when the man removed all doubt by saying “good night“ to those he had left. It was Mills, going across to his own room.
“Hst! Look!” I said to Constable Spender-Hennessy who was beside me.
“Do drop the melodrama,” replied this tiresome youth. “Who have you seen? Deadwood Dick?”
“Mills,” I whispered. The chauffeur hesitated, looked about him, then abruptly walked away from his own room to the door leading to the kitchen garden. I lost him in the shadows away to the left.
“Do you think that is what we are waiting to see?” I asked.
“If we have been asked to sit here shivering in order to watch a chauffeur going off for a drink I shall feel that even Beef has excelled himself in bathos.”
“How do you know we have not watched a murderer about to commit another crime?”
“I don’t know. I’m quite prepared to see Beef stalking the hound of the Baskervilles in a minute, or Sexton Blake jump out of one of those chimneys.”
“Not so loud,” I cautioned.
Constable Spender-Hennessy dropped his voice to an over-dramatic whisper. “Do you think that Liphook is the murderer?” he asked.
Just then, however, something happened to silence us, something which made me catch my breath and stare across to the roof of the other wing. Very slowly the little door leading to it from the house began to open. Someone was pushing it back so slowly and cautiously that at first it scarcely seemed to move. Then it was right back and we could see the dark shape of a man beginning to climb out.
The two men with me were silent now, breathing rather hard and staring across as fixedly as I was. It was clear that even the constable’s flippancy was gone, for in the movements of that slowly moving black shadow was something both fearful and dramatic.
Then from it came an unmistakable rumbling cough and I knew that it was Sergeant Beef.