The Ducrow case seemed to change Sergeant Beef. I who had known him for many years and chronicled no less than six of his investigations, found myself astonished again and again by his behaviour during this one. It was not that he lost his somewhat boyish sense of humour, or his taste for beer, or his habit of making portentous announcements, or that he ceased to be, in outward appearance, the heavy English policeman with the ginger moustache moist at the tip from immersion in a pint glass. It certainly was not that he was any less astute in his work, or in a certain way, any less successful.
It was as though for the first time in his life he was in what he rightly called ‘deadly’ earnest. For the first time in his life he was a little bit afraid. For the first time he was consciously nothing less than the protector and avenger of society working against a force which he did not under-estimate.
I respected this new Beef. I was with him during most of the long and, as it turned out, dangerous investigation and I was glad to see that though the old chuckle was still heard at times, and the old childish mysteriousness maintained, he had it in him to rise above buffoonery and tackle a very unpleasant reality.
The case opened conventionally enough. We had both read newspaper accounts of a murder in Kent and discussed them casually. For a man in Beef’s position, any murder has more than academic interest and I remember pointing this out to him on the morning when the newspapers first gave details of the Ducrow affair.
“You should read that,” I said, handing him the paper.
“Because I have made you one of the most famous of private investigators. You never know when you may be called into a case like this.”
He gave me a rather curious look.
“You know, Townsend,” he said, “you amaze me sometimes. Made me a famous investigator! My work has nothing to do with it, I suppose?”
“You find the solution. Beef, but that’s not the essential, nowadays. Which investigator doesn’t find the solution? You need a great deal more than successful detection to make you famous as a detective. You need a peculiar appearance, for one thing. Either enormously tall or minutely small. Very fat or almost wasting away. Beard, eye-glass or some such identification mark. You must resemble an a crocodile every few pages, like Mrs. Bradley, or talk like a peer in an Edwardian farce, like Lord Peter Wimsey. Or use bits of exclamatory French, like Poirot. You must be different, in other words.”
“Aren’t I?” demanded Beef.
“You are when I’ve done with you. But where would you have been without me to bring out all your little oddities? Still in the Force, probably, investigating chicken thefts in a village somewhere. I’ve made you what you are.”
“And not done badly out of it, at the same time.”
“I should have done better if I had had better material to work on. You seem to get such sordid crimes. If only you could be given a case with a large fortune involved, like this one. They say that Cosmo Ducrow was worth half a million.”
Beef picked up the newspaper and began in his slow and thorough way to read its account of the case. This was written in words which doubtless were considered by their writer to be snappy and terse, but I shall state the details then known in my own way.
Cosmo Ducrow had inherited a large fortune from his father, a shipbuilder of the Antony Gloster type. Cosmo was a strange neurotic man who shunned everything public and had few contacts with the outside world. Later I was to hear him described as a hermit-crab, a creature so sensitive that it can only live in a cockle shell, and dies if it is touched.
Long ago he had purchased for himself a large Georgian house near a Kentish village called Hawden, about forty-five miles from London. He rarely left its grounds. In his fifties, he had already abandoned most activities which hold other men far longer, not even handling a car for himself but keeping a chauffeur to drive his Daimler on the few occasions on which he ventured beyond his lodge gates. The reason for this isolation was usually thought to be shyness, but I think it went farther than that and was pathological. He hated to meet people and was uncomfortable with any stranger.
Ten years previously he had done what many a rich man of indifferent health has done—he married his nurse. Freda Ducrow was twelve or fifteen years younger than he was, a handsome woman of strong passions and decisive will. The two appeared to be fairly happy together, however, and Freda Ducrow had grown adept at shielding her husband from unwelcome contacts.
Their home, Hokestones, was large and grey, planted about with huge, rather gloomy trees and out of sight of the road. I found it later a melancholy place, but it was considered to be a fine piece of period architecture, and some of the pictures and furniture were of great value.
At the time of Cosmo’s death there were living in the house the man himself and Freda, a lifelong friend of Cosmo’s named Theo Gray, a secretary and agent. Major Gulley. This agent, as a matter of fact, was shortly to move into a cottage on the estate, which was vacant and had been furnished for him. As domestic servants there was a man named Gabriel and his wife Molly, who had worked at Hokestones for many years. There was also Mills, the chauffeur, a younger man but still nearer thirty than twenty.
The main gate had a lodge on each side of it, one of which had been enlarged and accommodated Cosmo’s nephew Rudolf Ducrow and his wife Zena. In the other lodge lived Dunton the gardener. They were five hundred yards from the house.
On the night of Cosmo’s death the Gabriels went to bed at nine-thirty and Mrs. Ducrow, who had been up to London that day, retired soon after ten, leaving her husband alone with Theo Gray since Major Gulley was away for the night. It was a cold night, and the two men enjoyed a whisky and soda by the fire. Then Theo Gray decided that it was time for bed and went upstairs, while Cosmo went along to the library. Gray calculates that this was about eleven o’clock. Cosmo and his wife had separate bedrooms, but Mrs. Ducrow heard Theo Gray pass her door to reach his room.
At four o’clock in the morning Theo Gray, whose room overlooked the drive, was awakened by shouts from the grounds, and looked out of his window. He could see nothing. Some weeks previously two lead figures had been stolen from the garden, and fearing that something of the sort was happening again he telephoned to Dunton the gardener in one of the lodges and told him what he had heard. “You had better keep a look-out,” he said.
Dunton pulled on some clothes and hurried out. In a few minutes he saw a man walking from the direction of the house. He concealed himself, intending to surprise and catch the visitor, but when he approached Dunton saw that it was Rudolf Ducrow. He hailed him and Rudolf appeared “very startled and upset” and hurried into his home.
At eight o’clock next morning Dunton found the body of Cosmo Ducrow lying beside a stone near the croquet lawn. The back of his head was crushed, and beside him lay the croquet mallet which had, according to expert opinion, been used to give him three or four terrible blows. Rudolf’s fingerprints were on this weapon.
When Beef had read the newspaper account which embodied most of these facts he thoughtfully sucked his moustache.
“Now, if this was one of the cases that you fellows write about,” he said, “it would turn out not to be the nephew at all. But real life’s different. How often do you get a string of suspects in real life?”
“I don’t know, because by the time we come to read about a case all the suspects not in the running have been eliminated and only the man whom the police believe guilty is being tried.”
“Quite right,” admitted Beef. “In real life it’s usually one of three things. The police haven’t a notion and cannot connect anyone special with the crime. Or the murderer is pretty obvious from the first. Or there is not enough evidence. But there aren’t many cases when it might be one of a dozen people and the investigator has to decide which is guilty.”
“Which of your three do you think the Ducrow case is?”
“Looks pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Unless there are things we know nothing about.”
It did look pretty obvious, and for the next few days I, in common with most newspaper readers in England, expected to hear of the arrest of Rudolf Ducrow on a charge of murdering his uncle. But the case soon dropped from the front page and no arrest was recorded. I myself began to lose interest and to look elsewhere for a new opening for Beef and me.
It was time Beef tackled another case, and one, I hoped, which would gain for him the sort of recognition which was given to his more aristocratic competitors. How many times in the past had I wished that I had devoted my talents as an investigator’s chronicler to someone less crude and homely in appearance, someone with more savoir faire, someone of the haute monde. I recognized now that it was too late to look for this and that; for good or ill my old friend would continue to be the subject of these memoirs. But as I have explained elsewhere, I myself am of the professional classes—I make no higher claim—a public schoolboy, educated as a matter of fact at St. Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and there are times when it seems that Beef will never rise above the level of a public bar. I therefore hoped that the next case to engage us would at least take us to a higher milieu.
The Ducrow case would have done that, I reflected. Rudolf’s wife was a daughter of Lord Dunborrow, and Hokestones was quite a famous country house. But if this was not to be, at least I hoped that we should not be engaged on some sordid case which took us to slums and tenements. One morning Beef rang me up. “This looks like it,” he said cryptically.
“What looks like what?” I asked, restraining my curiosity.
“A case for me.”
“For us,” I corrected.
“For me, but I daresay you can write it up if this new publisher of yours will take it.”
“If you imagine . . .” I began angrily.
“Never mind. Listen to this. It’s important. I’m being called in on the Ducrow case. Theo Gray is coming to see me today.”
“What do you mean ‘where’? At my home, of course.”
A picture rose in my mind of Beef’s little house in Lilac Crescent, one of a dingy row of cottages chosen because they were not far from Baker Street. I remembered the ridiculous brass plate he had set up: “W. Beef, Investigations”. I wondered what a man like Theo Gray would make of that.
“Couldn’t you have arranged to meet at my flat?” I asked.
“Certainly not. He’s coming at four o’clock, so if you’re interested you’d better be round before then.”
I agreed and hung up. At least, I thought, Beef would have a case.