“The trouble is,” said Beef while we sat awaiting the appearance of Theo Gray, “you’ve made me look so silly in some of your books that we can’t tell why I’m being called in. This man may be the murderer, for all we know, consulting me because he thinks I shall never find out and he wants to show willing.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” I retorted. “I’ve always admitted that you’ve got your man.”
“But you’ve made it look more like luck than judgement very often.”
How different, I could not help reflecting, was the conversation of Holmes and Watson while they sat waiting for their clients not half a mile away. If Watson had to make any apology it was for himself, not for the man whose achievements he proudly chronicled, whereas when I looked across the sitting-room at Beef I know how much I had to explain.
There was a short ring at the door and we could hear Beef’s wife hurrying forward from the kitchen. I had tried tactfully to explain to her the necessity, on occasions like this, of giving a professional air to the consultation, enquiring the visitor’s name and announcing him, but my efforts were in vain.
“Gent to see yon,” she said, pushing her head in and leaving our visitor to come forward after she had returned to the kitchen.
We both rose.
Mr. Theo Gray was rather a distinguished-looking man with thick hair prematurely white and a straight soldierly bearing. A clipped moustache and a well-tailored suit emphasized this. He did not look distraught or nervous, but he was clearly not a man to exhibit his emotions. Beef held out his large red hand. “This is a pleasure,” he said heartily, then introduced me. Theo Gray wasted little time on civilities.
“I want your help,” he said gravely to Beef.
“You shall have it,” Beef replied importantly. “I’ve read what’s been published of the case.”
“That is very little. There are some baffling features of it which have not been mentioned. What I want you to do is to come down to Hokestones and discover the truth. I should like you to come at once because at any moment the police may arrest an innocent man.”
“That’s not very likely,” cautioned Beef. “The police don’t often charge anyone with murder until they’re sure.”
“But as far as I have been able to gather they are sure. They believe that Cosmo Ducrow was murdered by his nephew Rudolf.”
“And wasn’t he?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said, wasn’t he?”
“Of course he wasn’t. Rudolf was very fond of his uncle and does not know what it means to be covetous. Unless we have that straight it’s not much good your working on the case.”
I thought it was time for me to interrupt lest Beef by his tactlessness should lose his opportunity.
“What Sergeant Beef intended . . .” I began, but Beef broke in.
“Look here, Mr. Gray,” he said. “You’ve known this young man for years. You couldn’t imagine him doing anything like this. But can you imagine anyone else doing it, for that matter? Murder is always a surprise unless it is just a crime of violence by a thug. Now I’m not saying that I think Rudolf Ducrow murdered his uncle. I don’t know anything about it yet. But appearances are very much against him.”
“Of course they are. That is exactly why I have come to you. I don’t want to see this young man put to the terrible ordeal of a trial. The only way to prevent that is for someone to discover the truth.”
“So in your mind discovering the truth and proving Rudolf Ducrow’s innocence are the same thing? You’re so sure he did not do it that you are employing me to investigate?”
“That is so.”
“Why me?” asked Beef suddenly and rather loudly.
There was the hint of a smile on Theo Gray’s face as he answered.
“I wanted the best man for the job,” he said.
“There’s some a lot better known than me,” Beef admitted. “Been written up better. Why didn’t you go to Poirot, for instance?”
For the first time Theo Gray looked a trifle uncomfortable. “As a matter of fact, I did make enquiries,” he said, “but found that he was engaged on another case.”
“What about Albert Campion?”
“Not interested, I gathered.”
“So as a last resort you come to old Beef. You know, Mr. Gray, I don’t know whether I shan’t refuse this case. Then where would you be?”
“On the phone to Inspector French . . .” began Mr. Gray, but Beef was chuckling.
“I’ll take it,” he said. “Now let’s get down to business.”
To my horror, he pulled out of his pocket one of the old black notebooks which he loved, and licked a stump of pencil.
“Tell me what you can about the murdered man.”
“Cosmo was a very strange being,” began Theo Gray. “He suffered as a boy from being the motherless son of a self-made millionaire to whom he was a great disappointment. His father was, as you know, old Mulford Ducrow, who rose from being a ship’s boy to the managing directorship of the Glasgow-Brazilian Steamship Company. He wanted a son to follow him to sea, imagining him a tough, Jack-my-hearty sort of chap, and was bitterly disappointed when Cosmo turned out to be a shy frail youngster more interested in philately than shipping. He bullied and snubbed the boy, and even when Cosmo was in his thirties the old man would shout at him and sneer at him and make him feel more self-conscious than ever.”
“I know the type,” he said.
“I was at school with Cosmo, and at Cambridge. In fact, we spent most of our lives together. I married when I was twenty-seven and my wife died five years later, since when we have remained more or less under the same roof. Cosmo hated and feared new faces, and looked to me to keep him in touch with life, to keep him sane, I sometimes thought.
“When his father died he inherited everything, but it would be difficult to imagine anyone for whom great wealth had so little significance. I persuaded him to buy Hokestones because I felt that he would be happier in a house large enough to give him absolute privacy. He was more easy in mind, more contented, for his first few years there than he ever was, before or since. Then, ten years ago, he married Freda Boyce.”
“A very happy marriage, I understand.”
“In a way—in a certain way—yes. You will, of course, meet Mrs. Ducrow, and I am not going to say anything which will influence your own impression. What can be said is that Cosmo, from the day of his marriage, ceased to be his own master.”
“Had he ever been that?”
Theo Gray looked at Beef as though the question had startled him. “I see what you mean. You may be right. Never in the sense that most men are. But he did make up his own mind about certain everyday things once, whereas Mrs. Ducrow never even allowed him to choose a suit for himself or decide what time he would dine.”
“Yet you say they were happy?”
“In a certain way, I think I said. Cosmo rather liked his life being run for him down to the smallest detail, and so long as he could shut himself up in his library with his unique collection of stamps his family could live as they pleased and spend what money they liked. Cosmo was a gentle man, a recluse if you like, shy to the point of misanthropy, but he was not a fool. If he took no part in managing his own affairs it was because he did not wish to.”
“He doesn’t sound like a man to have a lot of enemies.”
“He hadn’t an enemy in the world-at least, so far as I knew. True, he kept away from people, but with those whom he did meet and to whom he had become accustomed he was amiable and considerate. The servants, for instance, seemed very fond of him.”
“Yet someone did him in . . .” Beef pointed out crudely.
“I can scarcely believe that it was anyone who knew him.”
“A stranger? In that case you’ve got to suggest a motive. Had he been robbed?”
“No. His wallet and watch were on him. I have told you there are baffling features in this case.”
“Tell us about that evening.”
“It was such a very ordinary evening, until the tragedy, that there is scarcely anything to tell. Gulley was away. Gulley ran the estate for Cosmo and did any correspondence he needed. Splendid chap. Been with us for years. Cosmo, Freda and I had dinner together. Freda had had a long day in town and went to bed early. Cosmo and I had a last whisky and soda. He was talking about some stamps, I remember. He was going to send Gulley to a stamp auction, as he had done several times in the past. Quite animated, he was.
“I left him at about eleven o’clock. He said he would go through to his library for a while, and I was tired. There was nothing unusual in that—he often spent half the night with his stamps.
“Soon after four o’clock in the morning I heard shouting in the garden . . .”
“What sort of shouting?”
“Ah, that is the difficulty. Inspector Stute asked me the very same question, and I find it hard to answer because in a sense I only heard it in my sleep. At least, I woke knowing that I had heard it rather than heard it direct. You know how you can be awakened from sleep by something, know exactly what it was and wait in full consciousness for it to be repeated. That’s what I did, but it was not repeated. Yet I knew that I had not dreamed it.
“I crossed to the window and looked out but it was a black night and I could see nothing. I listened for a few minutes more but heard no sound. I then went and telephoned to Dunton and told him to take a look round. We had had thieves not long before, you see. Then I went slowly back to bed. What he saw, and what he found next morning, you can hear for yourself.”
“Yes,” said Beef. “Does Rudolf Ducrow admit being in the grounds?”
“Yes. He spoke to Dunton, in fact.”
“How does he account for his presence there?”
“That is one of our difficulties. He has no satisfactory explanation. He says that he could not sleep and decided to go for a walk.”
“On a pitch black November night?”
“That is what he says.”
“Did he hear any of the shouting which you heard?”
“That’s odd, isn’t it?”
“There was a wind. He might have been to leeward of the noise.”
“I must say that as the case stands, and on the information I have been given . . .” Beef began pompously, but broke off to open the door for his wife who had shouted “Will!” from the passage. She entered with a huge tin tray piled with heavy white tea cups and saucers, a plate of thick bread and butter, and to my horror a dish stacked high with shrimps.
“I thought you might like a cup,” she said and laid the dining-table while Theo Gray and I watched with some embarrassment.
“I do like a shrimp or two at tea-time,” said Beef expansively. “What about you, Mr. Gray?”
“Excellent. Excellent,” said Theo Gray thoughtfully and added something about phosphorus.
“Is that what it is?” grinned Beef. “Still, they’re very tasty. Now bring a chair up and we can get started.”
“Something else happened that night,” said Theo Gray, “something I have not told the police. When I was on my way back to my room after phoning to Dunton I was stopped at her door by Freda Ducrow. She was standing there in a dressing-gown. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. I told her that I had heard shouts in the garden and had told Dunton to investigate.”
“How did she take that?” asked Beef.
“She seemed relieved. Very relieved,” replied Theo Gray slowly.