A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Twelve

A Bone and a Hank of Hair

CHAPTER TWELVE

This was all very well, thought Carolus as he drove the short distance to Barnes, but where was it going to stop?  It was useful to find Rathbone so clearly remembered by people as different as Miss Ramble and Villiers but each of them sent him farther back into Rathbone’s past till at last, if he were not careful, he would find himself hearing details of childhood and parents or even become embroiled in the complications of heredity.
Yet how could he neglect the Lascelles Private Hotel?  Doubtless there would be a garrulous proprietress who would be set on giving him recollections of Rathbone’s diet and table manners, but there might be something far more relevant, as there had been among the oddments remembered by Mr. Villiers.  And secretly he had a faint hope, based on little more than guesswork and intuition, that he might hear something more recent about Rathbone.  At all events he could not afford to pass over the place, though he was determined to regard it as the last outpost on the road to the past.  If he were told about the family home from which Rathbone had moved to the Lascelles Private Hotel as a young man he would ignore it.
He found it, in the words of Villiers, ‘a boarding house with pretensions’.  The pretensions consisted, on the outside, of large gilt lettering running across the face of the house next door as well (doubtless by arrangement with its owner), and gilt tops to the iron railings.  In a small room labelled ‘Residents’ Lounge’ he faced the proprietress.
“Oh but we’ve only been here about a year,” she said, faintly amused at his question.  “You’re going back into history.  The people before us didn’t have it more than three years, I believe, so goodness knows who was here fifteen years ago.”
“I could not expect my luck to continue for ever,” smiled Carolus, rising.  “I’ve been very fortunate so far in tracing the man I want.”
“Sorry I can’t help you, but we’re not quite antediluvian, you know.”
As Carolus was leaving, the proprietress remembered something.  “Now I come to think of it, I believe there is a chance,” she said.  “We’ve got an old colonel here now.  He’s only been with us a week or so, but he came because he had stayed here, he said, in the old days.  Colonel Hood.  You could ask him if you like.”
“Is he in?”
“Not at the minute.  But he’ll be in before lunch, which is at one-thirty.  They never miss meals,” added the proprietress with a touch of asperity.  “As a matter of fact he’s the only one who has lunch here at the moment.  All the rest are bed and breakfast people who go to work.”
“It’s twenty to one now.”
“Then he won’t be long.  You may depend on that.  Why don’t you sit down and wait?”
“It’s very kind of you.”
The proprietress was right.  Not ten minutes later a jaunty figure in an Anthony Eden hat passed the window and entered.  Carolus heard him greeted.
“Oh there you were, Colonel Hood.  There’s a gentleman in the lounge waiting to see you.”
A cheerful voice said, “Thank you Mrs. D,” and the colonel entered.
Carolus recognized him at once.  The sharp white military moustache, the monocle cord, the striped tie which would have delighted Mr. Lofting, the neat dark clothes and the padded chest did not disguise the person of Rathbone.
Carolus could not resist a touch of old melodrama.
“So we meet again,” he said.
Rathbone quickly shut the door behind him and did what ‘Old Maree’ was determined not to do—crumpled.
“How did you find me?” he said brokenly.
“I told you it would be easy when the time came.”
Carolus was pleased that his luck was running, after all.  It had occurred to him as a remote possibility that Rathbone, whose knowledge of other cities could not be extensive, would probably be in London and might conceivably have gravitated to the place in which she had previously lived.  But that ‘Colonel Hood’ would be Rathbone himself had never entered his mind.
“They say that murderers return to the scenes of their crimes,” went on Carolus, “so perhaps widowers returned to the scenes of their bachelordom.  You are a widower, aren’t you, Rathbone?”
“What right have you to ask me?”
“None.  But I’m very curious.  I’m going to ask you quite a lot before I leave.  If I do leave without you.”
Rathbone stood up shakily.
“You’re not a policeman,” he said.
“No.  But that can be easily be remedied if you prefer talking to the police.  I told you they would search Glose Cottage.”
A hint of triumph was in Rathbone’s voice as he turned on Carolus.
“And what did they find?” he asked defiantly.
Carolus watched him.
“A pair of ear-rings,” he said quietly
Rathbone crumpled again.
“They also looked for finger-prints,” said Carolus.
“And didn’t find any!”
“That’s the point.  Like the dog that barked in the night.  There were no finger-prints.”
Rathbone sat looking at the floor.  Presently he said––“Are they looking for me?”
“I don’t know.  I’m not in their confidence.  They hadn’t been to Hastings when I was there.”
A sound like a groan came from Rathbone.  “Hastings?” he repeated.
“Miss Ramble is still there.  She has the liveliest of recollections of your stay there with the lady whom I must describe as your second wife.  Nor, I think, have the police interviewed ‘Old Maree’.  Watching Rathbone, Carolus for this name had entirely misfired.  “About Frenchy, I mean, and Cara”.  That went home all right.
“You . . . You . . .”
“I haven’t wasted my time looking for you, Rathbone.  I’ve gone back, not forward.  Back to Coleshill Lodge.”  That really struck.
“I didn’t kill her,” Rathbone murmured suddenly.
“Whom didn’t you kill.”
“Anyone.  I didn’t kill anyone.  Oh, God!”
Was the man going to faint again?
“Relax,” said Carolus.  “Why don’t you go and get it all off your chest?  You needn’t tell me anything.  But the police will soon know all I do, and more.  I can’t see what good you do yourself by trying to live under a disguise.”
There was no answer.
“You know the police dug up every possible patch of ground at Glose Cottage.  They’ll do the same at Coleshill Lodge when they get on to it.”
This was the most critical moment in the interview and at first Carolus thought the careful words had been ineffective.  But no.  The face which Rathbone turned up to him had an expression of sheer agony and the man had a paroxysm of trembling.
“So why not get it over?” ended Carolus.
Still no reply.
“You see, Rathbone, you are dealing with a very determined woman in Mrs. Chalk.  In order to obtain their inheritance for her children, she won’t hesitate to let you hang.”
The moustache, so slick and jaunty a few minutes ago, seemed to have sagged with Rathbone’s whole body.  It was hard not to feel some pity for the man.
“Why did you give up your job with Tonkins when you married?” asked Carolus more casually.
“I hated it.”
“The firm, you mean?”
“No the work.  I have always hated work.”  Carolus realised that he was hearing the cardinal fact about this man.  It was almost Rathbone’s religion.  “I never meant to do another days work in my life.  And I sha’n’t.”
Interesting, that.  It had put real animation into Rathbone for a moment.
“When did you first see your wife’s sister Charlotte?”
“When Annie was ill at Bolderton.  She came down.  Annie had kept in touch with her, secretly of course.  If her father had known, he would have been furious.  Annie asked me to send for her.”
“And when did you see her last?”
Rathbone thought carefully.
“Alive, never,” he said.  “We saw her in the mortuary.”
“So far as you could tell in death, was she much changed?  It was four years after her visit to Bolderton.”
Rathbone seemed puzzled by this question, or perhaps he was trying to get Carolus’s reason for asking it.
“No,” he replied.  “So far as one can tell, very little.”
Carolus nodded.
“You never met her friend Cara then?”
“Cara?  No.  We met none of her associates.”
“How do you account for the fact that everyone at Bolderton remembers your wife as being small and almost emaciated, everyone at Hastings as heavy and round-cheeked, everyone at Bluefield as tall, perpetually smiling and elderly?”
The answer when it came was so absurd that Carolus had to suppress a smile.  Yet it seemed to him in the circumstances the only possible answer.
“People change,” said Rathbone.
Their heights—in middle age?”
“Shoes,” said Rathbone.  “High heels.”
It was the turn of Carolus to say nothing.  When he spoke, it was on quite another matter.
“Why were you so upset when Mrs. Luggett heard you’d lived at Hastings?  Since you had nothing to hide, as you say, why should that have worried you?”
Rathbone muttered something about other people minding their own business.  Then he said bitterly to Carolus:  “You must have been busy.  All these details!”
“I have,” said Carolus.  “But I haven’t finished yet.  I am going to get the whole story from the beginning to . . . to the very unpleasant end.  I know a good deal more than when we met before, but still not enough.  I notice, for instance, that you have had your teeth attended to.  Was that part of your make-up as Colonel Hood?”
“I suppose so.”
“But why bother with all this, Rathbone?  You must have known you would be found quickly enough when the time came.”
“How did you find me” asked Rathbone sombrely.
“Schmidt is still at Tompkins.  His name is Villiers now that he is a director.  He knew where you live when you worked there.”
“But I don’t see how you could guess I should return.  It’s uncanny.”
“Are you a Christian scientist?” asked Carolus suddenly. 
“I?  No.  Why?”
“You were at Hastings.”
“A fad of my wife’s.  Soon disappeared.”
“As she did.”
“For a time, yes.”
“Somehow Christian Science and Church at Bluefield doesn’t fit very well.  Nor does the song over which you quarrelled with Miss Ramble.”
“That was ridiculous.  There was nothing in the song.  She was a narrow-minded woman.”
“Yes.  I dare say.  But your wife’s character seems to have changed almost as often as her height and weight.  The only thing that remained unchanged was her signature.  But I suppose that was the main thing.”
“You’re wrong,” said Rathbone.  I was very fond of Annie.”
“But you hated work?”
“Yes.”
“There were other inconsistencies, you know.  At Bolderton your wife was so abstemious that she had the greatest difficulty in swallowing a little milk-stout when the doctor ordered it for her.  At Hastings she drank ‘more than was good for her’ and went often to the Star and Mitre.  At Bluefield she was TT again.  How come?
“Sea air,” said Rathbone gloomily.
“Sea air my foot!  Then there was her health.  At Bolderton she was suffering from pernicious anæmia and was regarded as a chronic invalid.  At Hastings she was rubicund and cheerful and at Bluefield she never had a day’s illness.  How do you think you’re going to explain all this to the police?  They’re not complete nitwits, you know.  People’s memories are long.  Admittedly at Hastings you lived between two ferocious old gossip-mongers, Miss Ramble and Mrs. Bishop.  But Mrs. Richards who worked for you at Bolderton is no fool and does not exaggerate ‘nor set down aught in malice’.  Then Villiers ex-Schmidt, delights in remembering everything for the sake of it.  So does Potter, the clerk in Mumford’s office.  You were too recently at Bluefield to be out of anyone’s recollection.  How do you think you’re going to get away with it?”
Rathbone made silence and resignation his refuge.  Then Carolus fired a question at him of a different, a far more direct kind while he watched his face.
“Did you know Montgolfier Street,” he asked. 
Rathbone took his time.
“I’ve heard of it,” he said.
“You have never been there?”
“Not to my knowledge.  Where is it?”
Carolus did not answer.
“You tell me you never met your wife’s sister except when she came down to Bolderton, so you didn’t know a woman known as ‘Old Maree’?”
“Certainly not.”
“Nor one called Elizabeth?”
“No.”
“Nor a man known as ‘Daddy’ Makroides?”
“I’ve never heard the name.”
Here, Carolus felt, he was wasting time.  Unless he was very much mistaken, Rathbone was speaking the truth.  But Carolus tried again.
“What was the cause of Frenchy’s death?”
“Frenchy?” asked Rathbone warily.
“Your sister-in-law.”
“Oh, yes.  I was forgetting she used another name.  I don’t think I ever knew how she died.  Undernourishment had something to do it, I should say.”
“You don’t think she committed suicide?”
“I have no means of knowing.  A doctor gave a certificate.  If I ever knew, I forget now what he gave as the cause.”
“Where are you aware that there was talk of murder?”
“I wasn’t; but I imagine it wouldn’t be unusual in a case like that.”
Rathbone seemed strangely unruffled by this.  But he could not conceal a start when Carolus followed up these questions with another.
“Do you know a Mrs. Myberg?” he asked.
Not for at least twenty seconds did he say:  “No,” and it was in a low voice.  But he rallied to fire back:  “Who is she?”
“She used to be known as Cara.”
“I know nothing about her.  Nothing.”
“You don’t even know that she lives in Bayswater?”
“No.”
Carolus had nearly finished.  He tried one more question.
“I gather you are an expert in make-up?”
Surely, Carolus thought, Rathbone could throw that away lightly?  No.  His face remained grave.
“Where did you hear that?  Oh, at Tonkins, I suppose.  I was interested in amateur theatricals.  That’s all.”
“Hence Colonel Hood, I suppose?”
“I have explained that.”  Then Rathbone asked flatly the question which must have been most in his mind—perhaps for years.
“What is going to happen?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.  But I have warned you that Coleshill Lodge will almost certainly be searched as thoroughly as Glose Cottage was.  And the garden.  I imagine that the acid to your question depends very largely on what is found there.  Personally, I’m going back to Bluefield this afternoon.”
Just then a gong was beaten.  Carolus rose.
“Your lunch,” he said, watching Rathbone.
For a long time the man did not move.  Then he stood up, squared his shoulders in a pitiful attempt to resume the character of Colonel Hood, and marched out of the room.
Carolus was about to leave when the proprietress returned.  “Did you find out what you wanted?” she asked brightly.
“Not everything,” said Carolus, “but quite a lot.”
“Colonel Hood did remember your man, then?”
“Yes.  He remembered him well.”
Isn’t Colonel Hood a nice old gentleman?  Quite my favourite among the guests.  One of the old school.  So kind and gentle.  Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“A fly?” said Carolus absently.  “No.  I’m sure it wouldn’t.  ”
And do you know—I can’t help smiling—he has a lady friend!  Yes, really.  She comes to see him now and again.  I always leave them the lounge.
“Really? said Carolus as though enjoying the sentimental humour of it.  “What is she like?”
“She’s not young.  Very cheerful and pleasant.  Nothing extraordinary about her.  Wears rather too much jewellery, perhaps.  They sit and chat.  It’s rather touching.”
“Would you describe her as a powerful looking woman?”
“You do ask some questions!  She’s not an Amazon, exactly, but I shouldn’t like to fall out with her, if you know what I mean.  I should think she could give as good as she got.  She wanted an arm-chair nearer the fire one day and just picked it up as though it were nothing.  Now I must go and see to the lunch.”
Carolus took his departure and drove away; but he did not take the route by which he had come.  He turned north through Willesden and Wembley.  After an uninteresting lunch at the snack bar of a roadside pub, he continued his way towards Bolderton.  He was taking a chance.  At least he might make an almighty fool of himself; at the worst he might be causing serious trouble, even danger.  But he was doing what he had done from the beginning of this case, believing that in this way alone he would find the answer.  He was putting himself in Rathbone’s place.