I was relieved to find that there was a key in the lock of my bedroom door. I was firmly convinced that there was a murderer in that gloomy house or in one of its lodges, and it had occurred to me that he might not be sane. In that case no one was safe. However, during that first night nothing happened to disturb me.
At breakfast we were four men, Mrs. Ducrow not appearing. Beef asked if he might be shown the exact spot in which Cosmo Ducrow’s body had been found by Dunton, and Gulley agreed to take us there. Gray was going to fetch Rudolf Ducrow in case Beef was ready to see him later in the morning.
It was a cold windy morning, but the rain which had been falling in the night had ceased now. Beef suggested that we should leave the house by the french windows in the library, thus following the route which, presumably, the murdered man had taken.
We stepped out on to a flagged terrace and Gulley explained the lay of the land. We walked by a well-defined grass path to some wrought-iron gates which divided the garden proper from the grassy parkland beyond. This, we learnt, was let as grazing to a local farmer, but a tennis court and croquet lawn were fenced off from it at about two hundred yards from the house.
“There used to be a cricket ground for the village club, here,” said Gulley, “but Cosmo did away with that. He did not like intruders. It caused some bad feeling at first, I gather, but Theo Gray persuaded him to buy another ground for the local team and have it levelled for them. That is on the other side of the village. What was the pavilion here we use as a summer-house and keep the croquet mallets and things in it.”
We were now crossing the rough grass and approaching the wire fence. This was a simple one with two strands of wire only, put up to keep the cattle from the tennis court and croquet lawn but easily passed through by any human being. We followed Gulley into the enclosure.
“We’ve come just 335 paces from the house,” remarked Beef. “Where was the body found?”
Gulley led us to a metal and wooden seat such as one sees in public parks. This was within the enclosure, about ten yards from the little pavilion. “Cosmo was lying here,” he said. “Just beside this seat.”
Beef made a great show of looking about him in every direction.
“Is that the drive we came up yesterday?” he asked pointing to a tarmac road a few yards away.
Gulley seemed less interested in this.
“Yes. That’s one of the drives,” he said shortly. “The body lay here.”
“Is it the main drive from the lodge gates to the house?”
“Then why do you say one of the drives? Where’s the other?”
“There is a way for tradesmen’s vans from another gate to the back of the house.”
“But if a private car were coming up to the house it would take this one?”
“I suppose so.”
“Now exactly where was the body?”
“I can’t say to within a foot. Somewhere by this seat.”
Gulley seemed to keep on the croquet lawn side of the seat, but Beef was examining something on the side nearer the drive.
“I see there’s two pegs in here,” he said, “about five foot apart. They look as though they had been put in by the police to mark the exact position of the cadaver.”
I would have been amused at Beef’s use of this word if I had not been so interested in the reactions of Major Gulley to Beef’s suggestion. He was clearly put out and nervous.
“Very likely,” he said huffily.
“You’re not sure?”
“I’ve told you what I think.”
“Supposing this to have been the position of the corpse, I should like to see when it would come into view from the drive.”
Gulley stared angrily at him as Beef went to the pavilion and brought out two croquet hoops which he drove into the ground at the two peg-holes. He then marched down the drive and began to walk towards us. The drive had a fairly sharp bend at about this point, and it was as Beef rounded this that he stopped.
“About here, I should think,” he said and stood looking towards us.
“I don’t see what you’re getting at,” said Gulley.
“Just supposition,” Beef replied airily. “Just supposition about that car. Now let’s have a look at the croquet hammers.”
“Mallets. The police have taken the one used, of course. That was Rudolf’s special one.”
“Did I understand yesterday that you each had one?”
“Not really. The rest of us used any one that came handy. Hallo!”
Major Gulley was staring at the croquet mallets leaning against the wall. He then began to search the pavilion.
“That’s very odd,” he said and I was convinced that he was genuinely surprised. “That’s very odd indeed. One is missing.”
“You just said that the police . . .”
“No, no. There were six altogether. The police have Rudolf’s, but there are only four here.”
“When did you see them all last?”
“Last time we played. Back in September.”
“Perhaps the gardener might have used it for something?”
“Very unlikely. He has a perfectly good mallet and a sledge-hammer.”
“Is it any particular one?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
Beef appeared to lose interest in the missing mallet, and returned to the drive.
“Of course,” he said, “it’s a fortnight ago, so if a car did turn here the wheel-marks would scarcely be showing now. Or any other marks, for that matter. I came into this case too late.”
“Too late for what?” asked Gulley.
“Too late to clear young Rudolf Ducrow.”
“You’d better tell him that yourself. This is Rudolf coming up from his cottage now with Theo Gray.”
I was favourably impressed by Rudolf as soon as I saw that he had frank blue eyes, a rather Anglo-Saxon sort of face, and an open breezy manner. Beef, however, seemed more reserved.
“Come down to save my bacon?” said Rudolf cheerfully. “Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you. This thing looks so black for me that I can’t understand why I haven’t been arrested.”
“I don’t understand that, either,” said Beef. “But I know Inspector Stute who is in charge of the case, and I daresay I shall find out from him.” Beef then looked very steadily at Rudolf and asked in steady tones: “Did you do it?”
“Oddly enough, I didn’t. I liked the old boy. He was crackers, I suppose. Misanthropic and so on. But you couldn’t dislike him. And in any case I don’t want to kill anyone again.”
“Rudolf was a Commando,” put in Gulley.
“I see. You knew that you would be a rich man in case of your uncle’s death?”
“I had all I wanted. Cosmo gave me a couple of thousand a year free of tax.”
“You’re very frank, Mr. Ducrow.”
“I’ve got to be. You’re my last hope, they tell me.”
“I’m not holding out any hope at present,” said Beef. “I don’t know enough about it. But we’ll have a talk on our own later. I’ll try to put the truth together, somehow.”
“Now, is that where the body lay?”
“When did you see it there?”
“When Dunton called me over in the morning.”
“Had you passed this spot during the night?”
A little pause. “Very near it.”
“But you saw nothing?”
“How many of these croquet mallets were kept here?”
“When did you see them last?”
“To notice them, about a month ago when Dunton was putting all the hoops away for the winter.”
“And yon, Mr. Gray?”
“I think when we last played.”
“There’s one missing besides the one the police have got.”
“Is this pavilion ever locked?”
“No. We don’t bother.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ducrow. We’ll go into the rest presently. Perhaps I could call on you this afternoon? Now may we go back to the house?”
Rudolf, after telling Beef to come any time after lunch, left us and the four of us started on our way back to the terrace.
“There’s only one man now I haven’t seen,” reflected Beef, “that’s Mills, the chauffeur. Mind if I go round to the garage now?”
“By all means,” said Gulley. “But you won’t find Mills very talkative.”
“That’s what I was told about Gabriel,” Beef retorted and for some reason this silenced Gulley.
But at first it seemed that Gulley was right. Mills was a tall thin young man, shifty-eyed and tight-lipped. Nor was Beef’s blunt approach calculated to draw much information from him.
“What do you know about this business?” Beef asked.
“Only what I’m told.”
“Where were you that night?”
“In bed and asleep.”
“Where’s your room?”
“Over the garage.”
“What cars were out at the time?”
“Only Major Gulley’s. He was in London.”
“When did he get back?”
“About eleven o’clock next morning.”
“Anything else to tell me?”
Mills seemed to be sizing Beef up, deciding whether to be frank or not.
“Yes,” he said at last. “It’s about Gulley’s car. I keep my own records of distances travelled with all these cars. I was in REME during the war, see? Force of habit. When Gulley got back on the morning after the murder his speedometer showed that he’d done just about twice the distance he should have if he had just been to London and back.”
“Very interesting. Does anyone know you do that?”
“You might keep it up, will you? This is going to be a tricky case for me, and every little bit of information helps. All the cars are kept here, are they?”
“All except Rudolf Ducrow’s. He keeps his down at his place.”
“Has he got a garage there?”
“No. Just puts a tarpaulin over it in bad weather, otherwise leaves it out.”
Beef’s glance had been going upward while we talked and he now pointed to the roof.
“It looks as though one could get out there,” he said.
“Yes. You can.”
“And from there anyone could see the whole place, right down to the lodge gates, I suppose?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Do you know the way up?”
“Yes. I’ll take you.”
“All right. You go and join the rest of them,” Beef said to me. “Tell them I’m talking to Mills here. You can pile it on a bit about my interest in that car without saying anything about Gulley’s speedometer. Any mention of that car seems to shake them, doesn’t it? Some of them anyhow.”
“I’ll see whether it can be done naturally,” I said.
I watched the two of them going towards the house, the tall sinewy chauffeur and Beef, looking, I suddenly perceived, rather out of condition. A thought sprang to my mind and I called Beef back.
“Be careful,” I whispered, “he’s a powerful chap. We don’t know he’s not the murderer, do we?”
“You mean well,” said Beef, “but you do say some silly things sometimes.”
Then he followed Mills to the back door.
I found everyone gathered in the library, and as I entered there was a sudden silence while they stared enquiringly at me. I saw that Mrs. Ducrow had joined them and thought she was looking flushed and excited. Rudolf was stretched out in a chair smoking a pipe. It was Gray who broke the silence.
“Where is Sergeant Beef?” he asked, attempting to sound pleasant.
“He has been talking to Mills,” I told them. “He seems particularly interested in the matter of the car. Now Mills has taken him up so that he can see the whole disposition of the ground from the roof.” I decided to end with a little joke. “Le bœuf sur le toit! ” I said. But nobody laughed.