After dinner I accompanied Beef to the little sitting-room beyond the kitchen which was occupied by the Gabriels. It was cosy and very warm with a table covered with a red plush table-cloth, a loud-ticking clock and an apparently comatose tortoiseshell cat on the hearth.
Mrs. Gabriel, a little sharp-featured and as we found sharp-tongued woman, was introduced and Beef was given the large armchair by the fire while I was shown a wooden kitchen chair at the table.
Beef did not seem in a hurry to come to the point, and when he had been handed an enormous cup of dark brown tea into which four or five spoonfuls of sugar had been stirred by Mrs. Gabriel, he started to comment on the row of photographs beside him.
“Yes, that’s my daughter’s wedding,” said Mrs. Gabriel as Beef held a framed postcard. “She was a picture, wasn’t she?”
I could see a group of people looking as though they were being mesmerized by a boa-constrictor and made no comment.
“Lovely!” said Beef.
“And that’s my boy. He’s in the Navy.”
The information was scarcely necessary, for Gabriel Junior was in uniform. He was grinning like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Beef took a long gulp from his cup.
“Very nice,” he said, and even I could not decide whether he meant the tea or the sailor. “Well now . . .”
“You want to know all about this business don’t you, Sarge?” asked Gabriel, a little too glibly, I thought.
“Well, you shall hear what we know. And that’s more than the police have done. What do you want me to tell you?”
“Who you think did it, first of all.”
Like many of Beef’s questions this seemed to be unexpected.
“Well . . .” said Gabriel.
“It’s very hard to say . . .” reflected Mrs. Gabriel.
“If you had to make a guess?” persisted Beef.
“It looks very black against young Rudolf, yet I don’t somehow think it was him. Not the type, really. Too happy-go-lucky. I can’t really imagine who it might have been,” said Gabriel.
“Unless . . .” began his wife.
“I know what she’s going to say. You take this with a pinch of salt, Sarge. She’s prejudiced.”
“Oh no I’m not. I’ll tell you who my guess is, though it’s only a guess. Alice Dunton. That’s who.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because she’s a proper she-devil, that’s why. She threatened me with a hatchet once when she worked here, and I’ve heard her breathing fire against the old man.”
“Because it was through him she was sacked, and then Dunton wouldn’t go with her.”
“But is there any reason to think she was in the grounds that night?”
“Not that I know of. That’s my guess, all the same.”
There was a pause and Beef studied his notebook.
“If Rudolf had nothing to do with it what was he doing out in the grounds at that time?”
The Gabriels looked at him in amazement.
“Do you mean to say you don’t know?” said Mrs. Gabriel.
“You’re not pulling my leg?” asked her husband.
Beef protested his innocence.
“He’d been with Her,” explained Gabriel shortly but obscurely.
“Of course. Been going on for months. Mrs. Ducrow would go up to bed at nine or ten and before midnight he was in her room. Every night. They might have been a married couple. Even the police suspect that, I believe.”
“So that’s what they’re all trying to keep dark? You surprise me. When Dunton saw him he was just going home then?”
Mrs. Gabriel spoke with something like a hiss of malice in her voice.
“You wouldn’t think it, would you? Young chap, too. She must be over forty. But you can see it if you look at her. It’s written in her face. Soon as ever I saw her I knew what she was.”
“This must strengthen the case against Rudolf,” reflected Beef. “Gives him an extra motive. Did the old man know anything about it?”
“Him? Certainly not. He wouldn’t see it however much under his nose it was, unless someone told him about it. Mind you if he had known there’d have been ructions. He wouldn’t have taken that lying down. He thought the world of her. Proper silly about her, he was, and always had been. They say there’s no fool like an old one. You’d go a long way before you’d find anyone more in love with his wife than what he was.”
“Do you agree?” Beef asked Gabriel.
“Oh, yes. No two ways about it. We’d remarked on it a hundred times.”
“So if he did find out?”
“Well, he hadn’t at dinner-time, that’s a sure thing. He wasn’t one who could hide it when he was upset, and at dinner that evening he was as cheerful as you please. If he did find out it was later that evening.”
“Then you think he might have . . .”
“Might have done anything. He was only a weak little chap, but I wouldn’t put anything past him if he found that out.”
“That’s very interesting,” said Beef.
“Though mind you,” put in Mrs. Gabriel rather spitefully. “I’d blame her as much as Rudolf if that is what happened. You know about her drinking, don’t you? Bottles and bottles she gets through in her room on her own. I’ve seen her so that she could scarcely stand.”
“Mind you, Rudolf helped her with that,” said Gabriel.
“I daresay,” his wife went on. “The funny thing is the old man knew about her drinking and was very worried about it, but he never had a hint of the other.”
“Did either of you hear anything that night?”
Mrs. Gabriel smiled rather cruelly. “Hear anything? I should say we did. Our room is at the top of the back stairs, and there’s no carpet down. You can hear anyone coming up or down that way.”
“So you heard Rudolf, for instance?”
“We were used to that. As a matter of fact we used to leave the back door open for him. We heard him go up just before midnight.”
“Then about quarter of an hour later someone else came up the back stairs. I thought of waking Gabriel, but he’d only just dropped off, after coughing all the evening. I wondered if it was someone who had come in at the back door but I thought it was no business of mine.”
“Was that all?”
“No. A few minutes later two of them went downstairs, again by the back way.”
“You’re sure? Two?”
“Certain. I heard them, though they were going quietly. I went to sleep after that but Gabriel had me awake again in the early morning. Not long after five, it must have been. He had a terrible hacking cough and kept on and on till it nearly drove me mad. When I heard the clock strike a quarter past five and knew we only had another two hours’ rest, I decided to get up and find him something for it. I was just going to switch on the lights when I heard a car coming up the drive. I was curious and went across to the window to have a look. I could see the headlights coming towards the house, then the car was pulled up rather sharp.”
“Where would it have been then?”
“It’s hard to say. I think it had just turned the bend before the summer-house, but I can’t be sure. It stopped there for quite a few minutes with its headlights on.”
“Couldn’t you see where they were shining?”
“Not really. They seemed to be almost towards me. Then they were switched off and only sidelights left on.”
“Have you told the police this?”
“Certainly not. Let them find out. After a bit I heard the engine start up and then I couldn’t follow what was happening, but I think the car was either backed away or turned. After a bit I could hear it going down the drive towards the lodge gates.”
“Did you hear it all?” Beef asked Gabriel.
“Not really. I had a sort of idea just in the morning when she told me, but no more than that.”
“You’ve no idea whether it was a big powerful car or a little one?”
“Not really, though I have a sort of idea it was big.”
“What cars are there in the family?”
“Quite a few. Mr. Rudolf’s got a Jaguar. Mr. Gray’s is an Austin saloon. Major Gulley has an old Lagonda. Then there’s Mr. Ducrow’s Daimler, which was scarcely ever used, and Mrs. Ducrow’s Hillman Minx.”
“Who looks after them all?”
“The chauffeur, Young Mills. Well, I say young; he must be thirty now.”
“He’s all right. Keeps to himself.”
“So anyone of them could have been driving that car, or someone not of the family at all?”
“What about the lodge gates?”
“They were kept permanently open then. It’s only since Mr. Ducrow’s death they’re shut. Reporters and that—there was no peace at all. It was the police recommended it.”
Beef, pondered, then seemed satisfied.
“You’ve been most helpful, both of you.”
“ ’Nother cup of tea?” suggested Mrs. Gabriel.
Beef agreed. “That changes things somewhat,” he said. “But I daresay we shall get round it. Now is there anything else you can tell me while I’m here?”
“There’s one other thing,” went on Mrs. Gabriel, “but I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning. There’s a little cloakroom in the hall where all the men’s coats are hung. The police spent a whole morning there looking at every coat in the place and taking them away after, and goodness knows what. But one thing they didn’t see because it wasn’t there.”
“And what was that?”
“An old jacket of Rudolf’s. It had hung there for weeks. Goodness knows how it came to be here instead of in his own house. Must have taken it off in the summer and gone home without it. Anyway, there it hung. But on the morning after the murder it had gone.”
“Now whatever made you notice that?” asked Beef.
“Just chance, really. I knew there were some matches in the pocket and I wanted to light a cigarette. I know I did that the morning before. But when I came to it that day it had vanished. I looked carefully among the coats. Not a sign.”
“It may or may not be important,” pronounced Beef. “Now I think we better go through to them in the drawing-room. I’m most obliged to you both.”
“That’s all right, Sarge,” said Gabriel. “Anything we can do.”
I reflected how much at home Beef was with people like the Gabriels and how they always seemed to fall over themselves to help him. If only he could get the truth out of more educated people as quickly, what a detective he would be!
As soon as we entered the drawing-room that sense of overhanging danger returned to me. The three people there were too much posed. It was as though they had been set in their places by a clever producer. Mrs. Ducrow was doing some embroidery, and although when I examined it I realized that it was very good work indeed, yet it seemed out of place in her hands. Gulley was reading The Field and Gray The Letters of Gertrude Bell. It all looked too arranged, though Beef could scarcely have guessed this.
They could not, however, restrain themselves from staring anxiously at Beef.
“How did you get on?” asked Gulley.
“Not bad,” said Beef. “I’ve got a long way to go. I can see that.”
“Wouldn’t they talk?” persisted Gulley.
“Oh, yes, they talked. But it doesn’t add up to anything yet.”
“Pity,” said Gulley. “We’re all beginning to feel the strain a bit. And for Rudolf it must be appalling.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Beef, “if everyone will help.”
“I’m sure we’ll do that.”
“Then can any of you tell me whose car was driven up the drive at five o’clock that morning?”
This was clearly as much of a bombshell as Beef had hoped. Gulley appeared like a whiskered fish. Mrs. Ducrow stared down at her embroidery, and Gray looked frankly amazed.
“A car?” he said. “What kind of car?”
“Large,” said Beef. “Know whose it was?”
But none of them seemed able to make even a guess at that.