We came out of the cold little house and smell of dogs into darkness, but Beef did not start walking towards Hokestones. He hesitated a minute then announced his intention of paying a call on Dunton. I remembered the big surly fellow who had so grudgingly opened the gates for us yesterday and it seemed to me that the interview would be a difficult one. I thought of returning to the house and leaving Beef to make this visit alone. With that annoying faculty he has for guessing one’s thoughts, Beef sensed any hesitation.
“No need for you to come if you don’t want to,” he said. “I’ll tell you afterwards if he says anything worth hearing.”
“I’ll come,” I retorted, deciding not to be put off by Beef.
“He can’t eat you, after all,” Beef pointed out.
There was no answer to our first knock, and we stood in the cold and darkness listening for some sound from within. At last, when we had knocked again rather loudly, we heard steps in the passage and after bolts had been pulled back and a key turned the door opened. We could see the outline of Dunton’s great bulk, but he had apparently closed the door of the room which he had left, for there was no light behind him.
“Oh, it’s you,” he growled, and I thought he sounded relieved. “Well, what do you want?”
“To interrogate you,” said Beef.
“I’ve got nothing to say.”
“That’s for me to judge. Now there’s no good in you being awkward about this, Dunton. I’ve got my duty to do.”
“Ask me what you want then, and hurry up about it. I won’t stand here all night for you, or anyone else.”
“Nor won’t I!” said Beef, as usual growing ungrammatical with exasperation. “So you might just as well ask us in.”
“You ask what you want here.”
“I know you’ve got your wife back with you so that’s no reason to keep us all shivering here.”
“You . . . What the hell have you . . .”
“Now come along, come along,” said Beef as though he were gently clearing a crowd from a street accident. “We might just as well get this over. I may want to ask your wife one or two things, too.”
Dunton still hesitated for a moment then suddenly turned and led the way down the short passage.
“Shut the door after you,” he said.
The light in his kitchen was quite dazzling for a moment, then I saw a strange-looking woman standing by the stove. Mrs. Dunton was scraggy and untidy-looking; thick dark hair, turning to grey, was loosely tied and her eyes were resentful and rather wild, I thought. She said nothing as we entered, answering Beef’s hearty “Good evening“ with a nod.
“Now what do you want?” asked Dunton.
Beef held up the jacket he had found in Rudolf’s cloakroom. “Is this what he was wearing?”
“How the hell should I know? I’m woken up at four o’clock in the morning to go out and look for someone who’d been shouting. For about ten seconds I see Rudolf in half darkness before he dodges into his house. Now you ask me to recognize the pattern of his coat. And you’re paid for what you do.”
Beef remained calm.
“Not the pattern,” he said, “the colour. Was this about the colour of the coat he was wearing?”
“So far as I remember.”
“Had you ever met him before, going up to the house at night?”
“Can’t say I had.”
“So when he looked startled it might only have been because you saw him coming home at that time?”
“Pigs might fly. I should say he had something to be scared about.”
Mrs. Dunton had been sitting looking downward to her clasped hands. Now Beef suddenly rounded on her and snapped out one of his brutally direct questions.
“When did you get back?” he asked.
He had not caught her unawares, however. She looked up with a face full of hostility and said: “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, yes, you do. You left here some months ago when you got the sack from the house. How long have you been back here?”
“Who says I am back here?” asked Mrs. Dunton. “Who says I’m not just visiting?”
“And what the hell’s it go to do with you?” Dunton shouted.
“Everything about everyone on this estate has got to do with me because—in case you happen to forget it—I’m trying to find out who killed Cosmo Ducrow. If you won’t tell me when you got back I’ll tell you. It was on the night of the murder.”
“If you know so bloody much,” said Dunton, “what you want to ask questions for?”
“To give you a chance to shew you’re afraid to answer. Now Mrs. Dunton, what time did you get back that night?”
“I don’t know. ’Leven o’clock, I daresay.”
“Did you go out again?”
“You sat here talking?”
Dunton broke in.
“Of course we sat talking. What do you expect? She’d come back, hadn’t she, after being away? We had things to talk about.”
“And you were still talking when Mr. Gray phoned at four o’clock in the morning?”
“You know everything, don’t you?”
“So you only had to put a coat on and go out. You would have seen if anyone else had come down the drive after the shouts were heard and before Rudolf Ducrow shewed up?”
“I never heard any shouts.”
“But you were out there for five minutes or more before you saw Rudolf. Did you see anyone else in that time?”
“What do you think these gates are? A Zebra crossing? I saw nothing till Rudolf appeared.”
“And heard nothing?”
“Did you see Mrs. Rudolf Ducrow that night?”
“You didn’t go up to the house?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, haven’t I told you we were both here talking?”
Beef turned to Dunton’s wife again.
“You were dismissed from Mr. Ducrow’s service, I understand?”
“I’d of gone if I hadn’t of been.”
“What were you sacked for?”
“Because there’s some interfering cows who think too much of themselves and can’t mind their own business and go running with every bit of spite they can think of, while their husbands are no better.”
“So the Gabriels reported you?”
Mrs Dunton stood up and showed a face which reminded me that Mrs. Gabriel had called her “a proper she-devil”.
“Reported me?” she screamed. “I’ll give her reports where she won’t like them. The two-faced, evil-minded cat! And they were no better for listening to her.”
“You seem to have a grudge against the Ducrow family?”
“Well, wouldn’t you have? Listening to lies from those two.”
“I’m wondering how far you would carry such a grudge.”
“If you mean did she do the old man in the answer is ‘no’,” said Dunton. “Now, is there anything else, anything sensible, you want to ask before you go?”
Beef looked at him calmly. “Yes,” he said. “You seem to like to speak your mind about people. What do you think of Major Gulley?”
Dunton’s sullen face seemed to grow animated, but certainly not with affection. “Gulley? I’ll tell you. He’s a crook. A plain, dirty, swindling crook. He’s been doing the old man for years and spending the money on all sorts of women. It was plain as a pikestaff but the old man and Gray trusted him. Nothing was too mean for him.”
“That’s a serious accusation,” said Beef. “Have you got any proof of what you’re saying?”
“Proof? That’s a laugh. The old man himself had proof. They found out only about a week before he was killed. All of a sudden, for no reason, Mr. Ducrow sent for a chartered accountant, and he found that Gulley had been fiddling for years. Thousands of pounds involved.”
“Why is he still here then?”
“It was all being gone into when Mr. Ducrow was murdered. The accountant had all the books. They say Gulley will do time for it.”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“Yes, but whose? You’re not on speaking terms with the Gabriels.”
“Certainly not. It was Mills told me. I’d suspected it for a long time, though.”
“Do you think Mills might be prejudiced?”
“Well, he does want to get married, and hoped to have that cottage Gulley is going to have. But I don’t think it’s that.”
“Do the police know this?”
“Shouldn’t think so. Mrs. Ducrow has too much to keep quiet herself to go talking about anyone else, and Gray would probably want to let him off.”
“One last thing. Did you hear a car come in or out that night?”
“Funny thing—I did think in the morning I’d heard a car after we’d gone to bed, but I wasn’t sure. I was tired when I did get in and so was the missis. I said in the morning I thought I’d heard something but she said she hadn’t so I said no more about it.”
Beef closed his notebook. “That’s all then.”
Dunton stood up. “I wouldn’t have your job for anything,” he said. “Nasty, dirty business it must be, prying into other people’s lives. Still, I daresay you like it.”
Beef looked at him steadily. “No,” he said, “I don’t like it. There are even times when I hate it. Good night to you.”
He marched out of the lodge while I rather uncomfortably followed him.
In the cold darkness we walked side by side towards the house. Beef halted for a moment at the bend of the drive near the little pavilion and looked in the direction of the place where the body had been found.
“I’ve a good mind to throw this case up,” he announced.
Though on the previous evening I had suggested this I felt now that it had grown more interesting. There seemed to be so many issues and possibilities.
“Dunton was more than half right,” he went on. “This detection can be a dirty business. Poking about in other people’s affairs and getting them to commit themselves.”
“You mean that you’re sorry for the murderer?”
“I don’t say that. But I do get sick of it all sometimes. Digging out little secrets. Causing unhappiness, very likely, to people who have done no harm.”
“Aren’t you being rather morbid? After all, you’re seeing that an innocent man isn’t punished, aren’t you?”
“There aren’t any innocent men,” said Beef gloomily.
“Innocent of murder, I mean. Unless you agree with Oscar Wilde that we’re all murderers of one kind or another. ‘For each man kills the thing he loves’.”
“I don’t go much on poetry, but I understand what you mean. And there’s one thing about this case that’s as plain as a pikestaff. There’s more ways of killing a dog than choking it to death with butter. There’s more people concerned in the killing of Cosmo Ducrow than the one who bashed his head in.”
“You mean there was a conspiracy?”
“Not necessarily. Some of those who played their part may not have known what they were doing. I tell you, Townsend, this is a very ugly business.”
“I warned you yesterday . . .”
“I don’t mean that. It’s not the danger I’m worried about.”
“You admit there is danger then?”
“Not yet. But there may be later.”
“For you and me?”
I could hear a small, irritating chuckle in Beef’s voice.
“You don’t need to get windy. Keep your eyes open and your door locked and you’ll be all right. They won’t think you know too much.”
“I can look after myself,” said Beef.
We were approaching the front door so I said no more. But I had a strong presentiment of evil as we came into the silent hall. It was as though we were being watched by someone who was asking how much we knew, how dangerous we were, how we could be silenced.