A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Eleven

A Bone and a Hank of Hair

CHAPTER ELEVEN

It was time to see Mrs. Chalk again.  She had instigated the whole inquiry and should be kept informed, and there was a question which Carolus wanted to ask her.  She was still staying with the Gorringers, and it was to their house that Carolus went at the headmaster’s invitation to ‘take tea’ as soon as he had returned to Newminster.
“We are all agog,” said Mr. Gorringer as he admitted Carolus, “and have little doubt that you will have fireworks for us, my dear Deene.  We all have the greatest confidence in your ability to unravel this mystery.”
He led the way to the drawing-room, normally kept for the reception of parents, but today warmed by a log fire and, in spite of a smell of dampupholstery being dried, rather inviting.
Mrs. Gorringer quoted Robert Louis Stevenson:  “ ‘Home is the sailor, home from sea, And the hunter home from the hill.’  Muswell or Campden, Mr. Deene?  Where has the case taken you?”
Carolus was tired and rather nauseated by the case and found it hard to respond civilly to the facetiousness of the Gorringers.  He determined to let them see that this was very far from a humorous affair.  He greeted Mrs. Chalk, who looked as serious as he did.
“I have seen Rathbone,” he said shortly.
“Ah ha !” Cried Mr. Gorringer.  “I thought you would not let the grass grow under your feet.  When and where did your meeting take place?”
“At about one o’clock in the morning in the cottage at Bluefield which he had once occupied.”
“How did he account for the non-appearance of his wife?”
“He has to account for the non-appearance, as you put it, not of one woman but of three at least.”
“You’ll alarm me, Deene, are you suggesting . . .”
“I’ll tell you what I have discovered,” said Carolus, and did so without circumlocution but in detail.  He did not spare them the talk of murder in four places, Bluefield, Hastings, Bolderton and Montgolfier Street.  He did not spare them the police search of Glose Cottage or the recollections of Miss Ramble.  He gave them ‘Old Maree’ and Elizabeth, full length, and the death of Frenchy exactly as he heard it.
“What a sordid mare’s nest you have disturbed, Deene!” said Mr. Gorringer gravely.  “You certainly have a penchant for the leprous and macabre.  Who would have thought that a simple query like that of Mrs. Chalk would have caused you to stir such muddy waters?”
“Perhaps you thought it would be a sort of jolly treasure hunt?” said Carolus rather bitterly.
“I did not think it would put you on the trail of a mass murderer,” said Mr. Gorringer, in his turn somewhat heated.  “I still feel that only your morbid way of seeing these things is probably to blame.  By your own account you have but the testimony of a few perhaps unreliable witnesses on which to base your assertion that there are three disappearances instead of one.”
“You may be right,” said Carolus wearily.  Then turning to Mrs. Chalk he asked, “Did you know your cousin Charlotte?”
“Scarcely at all,” she said.  “I don’t suppose I saw her more than twice.  We did not meet as children, and from the age of seventeen Charlotte was not considered by my parents as a suitable companion.  I knew Anne much better than her unfortunate sister.”
But Mr. Gorringer returned to the attack.
“There is a point here which I am at a loss to understand.  Since you suspect this man Rathbone of such a terrible series of brutal crimes, how did you allow him to slip through your fingers?  There, by your own account, you had him.  But you left him at large.”
“What would you expect me to do?  So far as I know there is no charge against him.  Was I to hold him by force?  It would make pretty headlines, Kidnapping by Schoolmaster, if that is what you wanted, headmaster.”
“Heaven forbid!” said Mr. Gorringer devoutly.  “I see your difficulty.  But could you not have wrung from him the truth about the strange affair?”
“I had no thumbscrews handy,” said Carolus.  “But I think you can put your mind at rest.  When the police want him, they will be able to find him.  They’re very good at that sort of thing.”
“Meanwhile, do you anticipate any further . . .”
“Murder?  No.”
There was a long silence of the kind which novelists used to designate ‘pregnant’.
“And what will be your next steps?” asked Mr. Gorringer at last.
“I’m going to the firm of wholesale chemists for which Rathbone used to work.”
“Chemists?” said Mrs. Gorringer.  “I t’ink I smella da Rathbane.”
“Poison, eh?” said her husband, comprehendingly.
“I want to see whether anyone there remembers him.  It’s fifteen years ago and that’s quite a time.”
“I cannot but feel, my dear Deene, that it is much to be regretted that we recommended you to Mrs. Chalk.  We were under a complete misapprehension.  We supposed that we should be providing you with no more than a light holiday task.  Now all my fears for the good name of the school are reawakened.  Do you not feel that there is yet time for you to withdraw?  After all, the police, as you say, have searched the cottage at Bluefield and must be hot on the scent.  Can I not prevail upon you to spend the rest of your vacation in your comfortable home?”
“I couldn’t do that, Headmaster,” said Carolus gently.
“Of course he couldn’t,” put in Mrs. Chalk.  “He has to prove the thing, hasn’t he?  You are forgetting that my children cannot inherit their legacy until it is known beyond doubt that my cousin Anne is dead.”
Mr. Gorringer glanced at her reproachfully but said no more.
When Carolus reached his home it was time for the whiskey-and-soda he enjoyed after a day’s work and before his dinner.  When Mrs. Stick brought it, Carolus greeted her cheerfully.
“Tea at the headmaster’s,” he said.
“I expect you’re tired then, sir.  Would it be out of place for me to enquire whether that lady is still staying there?”
“Mrs. Chalk?  Yes.  She’s there.”
The housekeeper showed by the taut expression on her face that she had guessed as much.
“I do hope you’re going to have a few quiet days now,” she said.  “I was only saying to Stick, you need a rest if anyone did.”
“I have to run up to town tomorrow, I’m afraid.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Stick balefully.
He found that the premises of Tonkins Sons and Company in Hammersmith consisted of a warehouse and offices.  At a very small pigeon-hole near the entrance he asked for Mr. Tonkins.
“There is no Mr. Tonkins now,” said a voice from within.
“The manager, then,” said Carolus.
“Which department?”
“Oh, hell, give me someone at the top who has been here a long time with the firm!”
“That would be Mr. Smidt—well, Mr. Villiers he is now since he became managing director instead of general manager as he’d always been.  I don’t know whether he can see you.  What is your business?”
Carolus was tempted to say ‘Murder’, and leave it at that.
“It’s a confidential question connected with one of the staff.”
A sniff came from the direction of the voice.
“That’ll be just his tea, the nosy old so-and-so!  I’ll tell him.”
After waiting a few minutes Carolus was taken up by lift and shewn into a small but showy room.  It seemed that scarcely a firm with which this one did business had failed to send Mr. Villiers some token engraved or printed indelibly with their name and business.  Ash-trays, paper-weights ink-pots, calendars, paper-knives, framed prints, toys, ornaments, cigarette boxes were all tokens of regard if not affection from famous companies.  A brand-new carpet and an outsize desk may have been installed to give prestige to the newly-named and recently created managing director.
“A confidential matter?  You may speak in confidence,” said Mr. Villiers eagerly.  He was a hawklike man who wore too many rings.
“I wanted to ask you about a man named Rathbone.”
Mr. Villiers is pulled out a file.
“We have no such name on our books,” he said.
“No.  It is some years since you employed him.”
“Really?  How many years?”
The interest of Mr. Villiers did not seem to flag.
“About fifteen.”
“Fifteen.  Oh, Rathbone.  You mean Rathbone !”
“Yes,” said Carolus mildly.
“I remember Rathbone.  I thought you meant someone we employed today,” said Mr. Villiers regretfully.  “What about Rathbone?”  His hopes seemed to rise again.  “In some trouble?”
“He has disappeared.  Also his wife.”
“Good gracious!  But why come to us?  It is only by the merest chance that I remember the fellow.  He was in my department or I should not have been able to tell you anything.”
“I’ve come to you because I am trying to trace his life right back.  Did he work here long?”
“I can turn up the record, but it was certainly for a considerable time.  From a date before the outbreak of the war.”
“Please don’t bother,” said Carolus politely, but Mr. Villiers was proud of his files and not to be denied.
“Let’s see.  R.  1945 it would have been when he left us.  Yes, he had been with us for fourteen years.  Brigham Rathbone.  Born in 1908.  I remember him well.  Rather a shifty looking man, I always thought.  He surprised us by leaving to get married.”
“Why did it surprise you?”
“He didn’t seem the marrying type.  He was less than forty at the time, I see, but I recollect him as looking nearer fifty.”
“You did not know the lady he married?”
“Oh, yes I did,” said Mr. Villiers triumphantly.  “A Miss Bright.  She was the daughter of our chartered accountant.  Her father, Herbert Bright, was the senior partner of a firm called Bright and Endive who have done our books for years.  After his death we changed to our present accountants; but Herbert Bright was a friend of one of the Tonkins family and during his lifetime we should have gone to no one else.”
“So that is how Rathbone met his wife?”
“In a way, yes.  At that time the firm had an Amateur Dramatic Society which produced a play every winter, a record which was not broken even during the war years.  Miss Bright used to take apart—not the principal part, which was taken by Miss Silvia Tonkins, who was a most attractive young lady.  But Miss Bright was keen.  She would play either the French maid or the secretary or the elder sister:  minor roles, but still essential to the plate.”
“And Rathbone?”
“He was something of a character actor and our expert on make-up.  I remember old Mr. Tonkins is saying that it was the only time in the year when Rathbone came to life.  He certainly didn’t seem to have much enthusiasm for anything else.”
“Was he a satisfactory employee?”
“Oh, he did his work or he wouldn’t have stayed here, even during the war when we were very short-handed.  Rathbone was unfit for war service, by the way.  We have a very high standard.  But he only just did his work, if you know what I mean.  Never more than he needed.  There was something rather supine about him.  Old Mr. Tonkins, who was very shrewd, called him lazy but never lazy enough to be in trouble.  I don’t know whether you have labour trouble but, if so, you’ll know the type.”
Carolus thought of his school class, the Lower Sixth, and nodded.
“So Rathbone became engaged to Miss Bright through the Amateur Dramatic Society?”
“Indirectly, yes.  But not during Mr. Bright’s lifetime.  There was a lot of trouble about it because they met about a year before Herbert Bright died, as he did quite suddenly of ptomaine poisoning, I believe.  He was very upset about it.  He was devoted to his daughter and not at all pleased when he found that she was receiving attention from Rathbone.  Rathbone was ten years older than she was and looked more; he had no money of his own and very small prospects.  Herbert Bright had always had big ideas for his daughter.  She was, I can’t help saying, rather a plain young woman, meagre and not very healthy-looking.  But her father adored her and complained bitterly to Mr. Tonkins that an attachment had been allowed to begin and grow during the rehearsals for . . . let’s see, The Dover Road was the play that year.  Mr. Tonkins was very upset about it, too, and the annual play was discontinued.  However, when Herbert died and his daughter inherited, Rathbone lost no time at all.  Within a year of the funeral the two were married and Rathbone gave up his position here, presumably to live on his wife’s money.”
“Did you find the attachment extraordinary?”
“For my own part, yes.  But, strange as it may seem, this man Rathbone had an extraordinary attraction for a certain kind of woman.  I even heard it described as mesmeric.  He had rather strange eyes, with an expression hurt, watchful, timid, I scarcely know, yet seemingly able to achieve a quite hypnotic effect.  The men here were surprised, but the women claimed to have foreseen it.”
“I understand.  You have a very good memory, Mr. Villiers.  May I try your patience a little further?  There are several more questions I want to ask.”
“By all means.”
“First, where did Herbert Bright live?”
“Somewhere north of London.  Watford, Bushey, Enfield, Potter’s Bar, I forget exactly.  I live in Surrey myself.”
“Did Rathbone go to his home?”
“During his lifetime?  I should think almost certainly not.  Herbert Bright couldn’t bear him.”
“And—this is probably asking too much—where did Rathbone live?”
“I can tell you exactly,” said Mr. Villiers.  “Not very far from here.  At a private hotel, as it called itself, at Barnes.  The Athlone, or was it the Connaught?  No, the Lascelles.  Here it is:  the Lascelles Private Hotel, St. Andrews Avenue.  It was in reality a boarding-house with pretensions.  Rathbone lived there for many years, I believe.”
“You knew it?”
“On one occasion I found it necessary to call on Rathbone.  I was not then a director of this firm, you understand.  Yes, I saw the place.  Rathbone could go almost from door to door by bus.”
“And after the time of his marriage you saw no more of him?
“No.  I seem to remember hearing that he was living at, Bolderton, but that is all.”
“Now here is something which I want to ask you, Mr. Villiers, which you may not feel inclined to answer.  I know very little of your business, but I take it that like other wholesale chemists you handle what are called dangerous drugs?”
“We do, of course.”
“And without going into toxicological details there are many that are poisonous?”
“In certain conditions, yes.”
“Had Rathbone access to such?”
“Access, perhaps.  But access is one thing, the facility to abstract is another.  We flatter ourselves on a checking system which is impregnable.  No irregularity was reported during the whole of Rathbone’s time with us.  Handling chemicals as we do, we have learned to take the most scrupulous care.”
“Still, again speaking as a layman, I should have thought it impossible to be absolutely certain.”
“If you are interested, I will shew you our system.”
“No.  it’s very kind of you, but I will certainly accept your word.”
“I could not, of course, go into Court and say under oath they would be impossible for an employee to remove sufficient of one chemical or another to cause death.  I can only say that our system makes it extremely unlikely.  Things which would be on the poison list of any retail chemist are kept with special safeguards and Rathbone would have had no means of defeating these.  But do you suspect him of having done so?”
“I think you will find that the police will, Mr. Villiers.  I should be surprised if you are not asked to explain that system of yours to someone with more technical knowledge than mine.  Someone who, perhaps, might be able to pick holes in it.”
“That I very much doubt.”
“I am most grateful to you for all your help and information.  It is most unusual to obtain such lucid details of events fifteen years ago. 
“In matters that affect our staff here, I believe my memory is reliable.  In a large firm like this there are always problems and I make it my business to know as much as possible of our employees.  It would take a clever man or woman to escape my eye into anything that might be deleterious to the firm.”
“I’m sure it would.”
“And what I see, I remember.  I am glad to be of assistance to you.”
As Carolus was about to leave the building, the disembodied voice from the pigeon-hole asked:  “Get what you wanted?”
“Yes, thanks.”
“I thought you would.  There’s nothing he doesn’t know.  Talk about snooping!”
“Really?”
“Chronic,” said the voice.  “Ta-ta, then.”
Carolus wondered whether “Be seeing you” would be a suitable form of leave-taking, but in the circumstances decided against it.