We drove down in my car to Hawden, the village near which was Hokestones. It was a rainy dull afternoon, one of the last in November and not, I reflected, the sort of day on which one wanted to come to a gloomy house and grounds in which a murder had recently been committed.
As we approached the lodge gates Beef consulted the notes in his black book.
“That must be Rudolf’s house and this one Dunton’s.”
The iron gates were shut and I sounded my horn. A big red-faced man emerged from the smaller lodge.
“Well?” he asked, not troubling to disguise a natural surliness.
I was about to explain our mission when Beef leant from the car.
“Just open that gate, will you? I’m Sergeant Beef.”
Some further explanation was clearly necessary.
“We are investigating the recent . . .” I began.
But Beef would not allow me to speak.
“Have you any instructions about me?” he shouted at the man.
“You can go through,” said Dunton resentfully, and began slowly to open the gates.
“If that’s the speed you generally move at,” Beef said to Dunton, “it must have been a nice time before you got out when Mr. Gray phoned you on the night of the murder. Still, we’ll come to all that in due course. I shall want you for questioning later.” Then turning to me he added rather grandly, “Drive on!”
We started to go up the drive, and the house became visible. I suppose that kind of architecture is very fine for those who like it, but I must say that the flat grey front, the regularly spaced windows, the urns along the coping and the hooded front door seemed to me more grandiose than welcoming. The great dripping trees, cypress and cedar and monkey-puzzle, which stood about like gigantic scarecrows did little to relieve the gloom. It took us several minutes to cover the distance from the gates to the front door, but the drive took a winding course and there was doubtless a quicker way.
“I suppose this is what you’d call a mansion, isn’t it?” asked Beef, trying not to sound awed.
“It is one of the finest Georgian houses in this part of the country,” I said, then added mischievously: “You will soon grow accustomed to staying in a house of this kind.”
“What about you?” asked Beef rudely.
“My great uncle . . .”
“Oh, cheese it, Townsend. You give me the gripes. Come on, let’s go and see what to make of this turn-out. Georgian or not Georgian, they’ve had a murder here. And a very nasty murder at that.”
I decided to let this pass, reflecting that Beef was incapable of any refinement.
The front door was opened by a squat, square-headed man who stared at us fixedly.
“You must be Mr. Gabriel,” said Beef. “Glad to know you. Nasty day, isn’t it?”
I tried to signal to Beef that one should never gossip with servants at the front door, but could not make him see me. Gabriel, addressed in this way by a caller, seemed to have forgotten his manners, too.
“It’s a stinker,” he agreed. “All right for ducks.”
“Army?” asked Beef.
“Keep you long?”
“Four years of it.”
“What about the fräuleins, though?”
I decided to put a stop to this vulgarity.
“Is Mr. Gray at home?” I asked severely.
“Yes. He’s in the library. I’ll take you through.”
“I’d like a word or two with you later,” Beef told Gabriel.
“Cern’ly, sarge. Come on down to our sitting-room when you like. If there’s anything I can tell you, you’re welcome. The police don’t find out everything, you know.”
I distinctly saw him wink.
“I’ll be down presently for a cup of char.”
Gabriel ushered us into the library.
Theo Gray in his own surroundings was both more genial and more imposing than he had been in Beef’s stuffy little sitting-room. He made us welcome, shewed us chairs and rang for tea.
“That’s Gabriel, is it?” asked Beef. “How long’s he been working here?”
“Since about 1930, though he had four years’ war service in that time.”
“Seems all right.”
“Gabriel? First-rate. Straight as a die. An excellent servant. The only trouble with Gabriel in this affair is that he is unnecessarily reserved. The police complain, in fact, that he is unco-operative.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t like policemen. There are people who don’t,” said Beef with heavy sarcasm. “Well, this is the library, is it?”
“The last time you saw Mr. Ducrow he was making for this room?”
“Kept his stamps here?”
“Those are his albums and specimen cases.”
Beef looked about him. “You didn’t tell me there were french windows in this room. Where do they lead?”
“On to the terrace.”
“So Mr. Ducrow could have walked out there?”
“Almost certainly did so, I imagine. He had no overcoat on when he was found, as he would most probably have had if he had gone out by the front door.”
“What could have taken him out there?”
“That’s what you have to find out, surely?”
“I daresay it is. Were these french windows found locked in the morning, or were they open?”
Gray looked at Beef open-eyed, as though he were suddenly realizing something.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never thought to ask. It’s important too, isn’t it? We’ll find out from Gabriel.”
He pressed the bell. “Gabriel, you were the first in this room on the morning after the murder, weren’t you?”
“So far as I know, sir.”
“Did you find the French windows locked as usual?”
“The police asked me that. I found them unlocked as usual, sir. You see, even if I locked them up earlier in the evening, ten to one Mr. Ducrow would step out for a breath of air and forget to lock them. I often found them open.”
“I see. So although they were unlocked that day you attached no importance to it?”
“You may go. You see. Sergeant? We seem to be baffled at every turn. Good point though.”
“It’s not of any importance,” said Beef loftily.
We were interrupted by the entrance of a bald man with a comedian’s red moustache.
“This is Major Gulley,” said Gray. Gulley greeted us too heartily, I thought. He had one of those deep plummy voices such as you hear in the more boring guessing-games and general knowledge tests which the B.B.C. puts out as entertainment. His clothes were of expensive and shapeless tweed and his heavy brown shoes highly polished.
“The great sleuth, eh?” he said to Beef. “Well, we need you here, I can tell you. We’re all pretty angry about this business and we want it cleared up.”
“All but one,” said Beef.
“One? I see what you mean. Yes.”
I had a quick premonition that Beef was coming out with one of his most gross and tactless broadsides, and shuddered to think of its effect in that quiet civilized room. Sure enough he did.
“Where were you that night?” he asked Gulley with brutal directness.
The Major seemed only slightly put out. “In town,” he said. “Stayed at the flat.”
Gray intervened to explain that the late Mr. Ducrow, though he scarcely ever left Hokestones, kept a service flat in Montrevor House, one of the great blocks of luxury flats in Knightsbridge. It was used by any of the household who wished to stay up there.
“Alone?” asked Beef.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, anyone with you to say you were there?”
Gulley managed to laugh.
“I see. No one else spent the night in the flat, if that is what interests you.”
“But you can produce a witness?”
“Really, you know, this is rather offensive, isn’t it? Are you suggesting that I need an alibi for Cosmo’s murder?”
“I don’t know whether you’ll need it, but it’s a handy thing to have. You benefit under the will, I daresay?”
The bounce and satisfaction were going out of Major Gulley’s manner, and he was obviously struggling to keep his temper.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “And since you appear to be licensed to ask silly questions, I’ll tell you that on that evening I took a lady to dinner and she returned to the flat with me. We remained there for an hour or two, after which I drove her home to Kensington. I have no intention of giving you her name or calling her as a witness, but the porter saw me go out with her. Another porter chatted with me when I left the building next morning.”
“No need to get shirty, Major. I’ve got my job to do.”
“Then I suggest you get on with it, instead of asking me a lot of dam’ fool questions.” He turned to Gray. “I told you it was a pity you couldn’t get Poirot or Albert Campion. This case needs tact.”
I came to Beef’s defence.
“Sergeant Beef believes in bluntness,” I explained. “But I am sure it’s only his unfortunate manner. It doesn’t mean that he suspects you, sir.”
“I suspect everyone,” said Beef, “until I know different. I shall want a little talk with you tomorrow, Major, if you don’t mind. You will be able to tell me a number of things about the late Mr. Ducrow’s affairs.”
“Very well,” said Gulley. “And I think it’s time we all had a drink.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Beef vulgarly.
While we were waiting for Gabriel to appear Beef referred to his notebook.
“On the subject of drink,” he said. “Who had what? That night, I mean? Anyone in the house what you might call a real boozer?”
I saw Gray and Gulley exchange glances.
“Since you have called him in,” said Gulley, “there’s no point in not being frank.” Gray nodded and Gulley continued. “Mrs. Ducrow is a lady of temperament. On most occasions she is quite abstemious, but there are times when she . . . er . . .”
“She has periods of depression,” explained Gray. “Very rare, but sufficient to give us all some anxiety.”
“Gin?” asked Beef understandingly.
“And she was on the bat at the time of the murder?”
“No. That is . . . we feared that she might be going to have one of her little spells. She was very lively at dinner, laughing rather unnaturally, we thought. And we knew that she is accustomed to keeping liquor in her bedroom.”
“I see. Anyone else?”
“Cosmo enjoyed a whisky but never drank to excess,” said Gray. “I myself am no teetotaller but I have never been intoxicated in my life. The same may be said of Major Gulley.”
“Fair enough,” admitted Beef.
Gulley, looking rather uncomfortable, added, “Rudolf is not a drunkard, but there are times when he is a little unwise. His war service, you know . . .”
“I shall have to see him tomorrow,” reflected Beef. “Well, now I know something about everybody and begin to get the set-up, as they say. It’s going to be a very tricky case because none of you can imagine any of the others doing it and you’re all going to be cross when you’re asked about anyone else. But someone did it, that’s certain. That skull was smashed right in by someone. I can’t see that an outsider could have had any motive—so there you are. You blame me for asking you questions. Major Gulley, but if you’re fair you’ll see that I’ve got to treat you all as suspects.”
“The women too?”
“Why not? It would not take a very powerful woman to swing a croquet mallet on to the back of a man’s head.”
“In that case,” said Gulley slowly, “there are two more who haven’t been mentioned yet.”
“And they?” asked Beef.
“They are Mrs. Gabriel and Rudolf’s wife.”
“I’m not forgetting them,” pronounced Beef.