A Bone and a Hank of Hair
He could at first think of no way in which to pass the next four hours in these bright built-up areas of innumerable new houses. In spite of the very real urgency of the situation, he did not want to call at Coleshill Lodge till nearly seven o’clock, when Humbell would have finished the evening meal which he ate on his return from the office. It was a stark and weary prospect, for the time now was a quarter to three and round him stretched the endless monotones of an afternoon in new suburbs. He wanted to sit and think as you could at Newminster in the warmth of his own pleasant sitting room. Then suddenly he remembered the cinema. He drove on till he found a cinema showing an American film which could not conceivably distract him from his thoughts, and entered. It was warm and nearly empty.
As for thinking, he soon passed into a snoozy reverie in which the case he was investigating was no more real than the figures on the screen. Three disappearances and—was there a death connected with the thing? He remembered Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact what-do-you-expect attitude about ‘Frenchy’. The usual doctor gave the usual certificate, she said, after blowing out with her cigarette smoke the suggestion ‘probably murdered’. Then there was the fact—surely irrelevant but still in the circumstances noteworthy—that Herbert Bright had died in an extremely convenient moment of ptomaine poisoning as Villiers called it, probably using an out-moded term for botulism.
In any case three disappearances. Only in the first had Rathbone not said plaintively to someone, ‘my wife has left me’. The ‘first Mrs. Rathbone’, as Carolus for the sake of convenience called Anne, had not apparently ‘left’ him as the other two, if there were two others, had done. Either she had gone with him from Coleshill Lodge or . . . been left behind. At all events no one, to the knowledge of Carolus, had set eyes on any person answering to her description since Mrs. Richards and Dr. Whistley, who had seen her weak and ill in her room at Coleshill Lodge. Unless, of course, thought Carolus dreamily, either Christian science or Hastings air was so miraculous in its effect that within a few weeks of taking to them Anne had become a buxom woman who liked a drink and sang vulgar songs at the piano.
Then there was the second disappearance from Hastings, this time with suitcases in the car, and Rathbone’s return late at night and subsequent wailings that he had been deserted. If the ‘second Mrs. Rathbone’ was not Anne, whence had she risen and to what cheerful haven had she afterwards retired? Terrestrial or not? She had been a friendly soul and had identified the body of ‘Frenchy’. That seemed to argue that she and Anne were one. ‘People change’ said Rathbone. Could be be so far right?
As for the ‘third Mrs. Rathbone’ with her toothy grin and reluctance to chatter—what a change was here! If a woman could change to that extent, so abruptly and so much for the worse, it was a nightmare world. Yet she had been recognised by Mumford’s clerk Potter as the original inheritor of Herbert Bright’s estate who had also called at the office during her residence at Hastings. Very confusing, that. It really began to look as though Mr. Mumford were right when he said he had heard too many descriptions in Court to take any notice of them.
There was an explanation, of course, and one which covered every inconsistency, but it was of a nature so macabre that Carolus did not want to accept it. Yet, was anything too macabre for belief? Three seeming disappearances, two possible murders––what were these to the seventy-odd which Petiot claimed or even for the thirty for which he was guillotined?
At all events tonight should decide. Unless he were wrong in his basic plan of campaign, which consisted in putting himself in Rathbone’s place, tonight should yield the information he needed. Not a complete explanation; but at least all that was necessary at this time. There might still be some spadework to be done. (He smiled unhappily over the term.) But most of that could be left to the police.
Reaching Bolderton at last, Carolus regretfully garaged his car. He might need it urgently, but the risk of it standing, so easily recognizable, in the street was too great. He went on foot to Coleshill Lodge. Humbell himself opened the door.
“I’m awfully sorry to trouble you again,” began Carolus.
“Oh, yes. You came to make inquiries about the Rathbones. Do come in.”
He was shewn into the sitting room in which he had interviewed the Humbells during his previous call; it looked very cosy, with warmly shaded lights and a good fire. Mrs. Humbell put down her book and he saw that by the other arm-chair were the evening paper, Humbell’s pipe and a tumbler.
“Have a drink?” said Humbell. “I’ve got some whisky, if you like that, or a bottle of beer.”
“Before you are so hospitable, you had better hear what I’ve come about,” said Carolus smiling.
“Nonsense. Give me your coat. Whisky, I’m sure.”
It occurred to Carolus that although these people were contented, happy to be together in the home they had made cheerful, they welcomed the guy version of his visit. They had their share of curiosity and in the years they had lived here and probably speculated often about their mysterious predecessors. They were very English, perhaps what is rather fatuously called commonplace people. The man would be considered sound, reliable, straight as a die, competent and no fool. The wife was sensible, kindly, shrewd and calm.
“It’s strange you should bring up all this about the Rathbones,” said Humbell, when they were at ease. “We often used to wonder about them when we first came. There was a lot of foolish talk at the time. But we had only recently lost our only son in the war and wanted to move near London. We were delighted to find this place, which was just the right size when there were only the two of us. So we weren’t going to be put off by gossip about it, were we, dear?”
Mrs. Humbell smiled. “We even heard it was haunted,” she said.
“Yes. But we’re the wrong people for that sort of nonsense. We’ve never seen or heard anything out of the way since we came here.”
“That, I’m afraid, is what I’ve come to tell you. I think you may see or hear something tonight.”
Humbell grinned. “A ghost?” he asked.
“No. But a visitor. Look, Mr. Humbell, I’m going to risk your thinking me a bore or a bringer of bad luck or what not. I’m going to tell you exactly what I believe and leave it to you to act as you think best. But before I do so, I must say that I may be hopelessly wrong. I haven’t a scrap of proof to go on. I’m trusting entirely to two things, my instincts and the experience I have accumulated in working out a number of rather curious cases.
“Also I want to say how sorry I am that you two should be dragged into something so unpleasant. But it just can’t be helped. If I am right, when you took this house you inherited with it not only the excellent Mrs. Richards but the Rathbone mystery. And a mystery it still is.”
Humbell pulled at his pipe. “I expect we can take it,” he said. Would you explain a little more clearly?”
“Of course. There is reason to think that the woman Rathbone married, with whom he lived here for about eight years, is either missing or dead. I am convinced that somewhere in this house, or more probably in the garden, is concealed some kind of evidence which will enable us to trace her, whether she is alive or dead.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I have told you it is little more than an instinct. If she is alive, there is still something here which troubles Rathbone. But more probably she is dead.”
“You mean, to be frank, that you think the remains are here?”
“You use the very word, though I did not like to put it in that way. Remains are all that can possibly exist, and there may be very little of them. Fourteen years is a long time. But something is here, I feel sure. You must have heard from Mrs. Richards how the house was left. First they dismissed the nurse. Then, for no reason at all that she can see, Mrs. Richards herself. Then, on the day before the doctor was due to pay his weekly visit, but two or three days after Mrs. Richards had left, the house was vacated after dark. No one saw them go. There were no houses adjoining this then, and no one heard them. When the doctor arrived next day there was no one here.”
“Yes. It’s odd. We’ve often thought so.”
“But what makes it so much more odd, Mr. Humbell, is that much the same thing has happened again. Not once, but twice. Rathbone went from here to Hastings and from there took his wife for a drive from which she never returned. From there he moved to a lonely village called Bluefield where he did the same. Meanwhile his sister-in-law in London died suddenly. And I find today that Rathbone is associating with a woman who calls at his boarding house to confer with him. One begins to wonder where it will stop.”
“I should think so. What are the police doing about it?”
“The police, to be fair, have not been given the facts of the case as I have. All they have been told, so far as I know, is that a man and his wife disappeared suddenly from a cottage at Bluefield.”
“Oughtn’t they to be told more?”
“As soon as there is anything to tell them. I don’t think they’d be much interested in the kind of half-baked theorizing I’ve been doing this evening.”
“One thing I’d like to know,” said Mrs. Humbell in her pleasant quiet voice, “is why you say tonight? You said you thought something was going to happen tonight. Why?”
“Because,” said Carolus slowly, “Rathbone learned today that the police associate him with this place and intend to search it as they searched the other cottage. If I am right in thinking that some evidence is concealed here, and if it is accessible, I don’t think a moment will be wasted.”
“It’s a nice prospect,” said Mr. Humbell. “As I see it, you have practically come to warn us that we can expect a call from a murderer, perhaps a multiple murderer, in our home tonight.”
“I haven’t said quite that. But of course it’s beastly. I have hated telling you about it.”
“What do you suggest we should do?”
“I suggest you should let me stay down here by the fire. There is, thank heavens, a bright moon tonight and I can see most of the garden from this window. I know it’s fearful presumption to suggest it, but it is not a case for beating about the bush.”
Humbell exchanged glances with his wife. “You’re welcome to stay so far as we’re concerned,” he said. “In fact we should be glad to have you in the house.”
“You’re showing great confidence in me. After all, you know nothing about me. I might be a mild lunatic with a bee in his bonnet about the Rathbones.”
“I think I am a pretty good judge of a man, Mr. Deene,” said Humbell, then added irrelevantly, or perhaps not quite irrelevantly: “Our son would have been just about your age, if he had lived. My wife even thinks there’s a likeness. Anyhow, let’s get down to brass tacks. You want to stay in this room because you think Rathbone will try to recover something he left behind. Is that it?”
“Rathbone or someone else, yes.”
“Someone else? You did not say anything about that.”
“This is a very strange affair, Mr. Humbell. I do not know who may be involved. And I’m afraid I cannot be sure that, even if this happens, it will be tonight. It might be tomorrow or just possibly the next night, though I don’t think so.”
“I see. I’m out to help you in any way I can, but I still can’t see why we don’t simply called the police.”
“There are several good reasons. They would not take seriously my idea of a visit tonight, for one. And they might scare our bird off, for another.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“Now could you give me an idea about the garden? How it’s laid out, I mean, and how anyone could enter it?”
“It’s very easy to enter, as you must have seen. Down the road-side of it there are only the old park railings of the iron hurdle type, which a child can climb, with a few shrubs behind them. Then most of it’s a lawn, which was down when I came, with a perennial border around it.
“You’ve made very few changes?”
“Beyond building a wooden summer-house in the far corner, very few. In fact the plan is identical. All I have done is to grow things where there was nothing but weeds when I came. Rathbone can’t have been much of a gardener.”
“No. I’ve had cause to see that in his cottage at Bluefield. Where do you keep your gardening tools?”
“In the outside lavatory, which locks up. I take it that, if anything happens in the night, you’ll call me?”
“I shall do nothing of the sort,” smiled Carolus. “I don’t expect to do more than observe, myself.”
“But you won’t let any evidence be taken away. There might be more than one intruder . . .” It was plain that Mr. Humbell did not want to be left out of it.
“If I need any help,” promised Carolus, “I’ll give you a shout.”
The two men had a last nightcap after Mrs. Humbell had climbed the narrow stairs to her room. “It wouldn’t be an easy house to break into, this,” said Humbell. “All these diamond-paned windows have heavy metal frames.”
“They wouldn’t present much difficulty to an expert,” said Carolus, “but an amateur would find them hard to manipulate silently. So far as we know, no one connected with this case is a professional screwsman. That is why I don’t think whatever it is that’s wanted can be in the house. I mean, if anyone comes at all he will come for something he knows he can get fairly easily; therefore my guess is that it’s outside. I don’t suppose you’ve had to go deeper than ordinary digging of the border?”
“No. Except when we built the summer-house. That has bricked foundations. Just its four corners, I mean, to raise the wooden floor a few inches from the ground.”
“There’s no cellar under the house?”
“You have main drainage.”
“Yes. Well, Deene, help yourself to another whisky when you want it. You’ve got blankets there and quite a comfortable settee . . .”
“I shan’t sleep.”
“I wish you an interesting vigil them. I hope you’ll have some breakfast with us tomorrow. It’s Sunday and we usually take it pretty easy, but the wife will be down by about nine. Good night.”
Carolus waited until Humbell had climbed the stairs, then turned out all lights in the room. The fire was burning low by then. He crossed to the windows and slowly drew back the long curtains. There was enough moonlight to see as far as the end of the little square of garden, but only to see a shadowy confusion of black and grey.
Carolus drew a chair to the window, choosing a straight-backed and none too comfortable one for fear of sleeping. He threw away his cigarette, whose little ember would be a signal to anyone in the garden. He picked up the blankets which Mrs. Humbell had left him and drew them round him, meaning to let the fire go out. Even if anyone came close to the window and peered in now, Carolus would remain invisible. It would be a wretchedly uncomfortable vigil, and not for the first time he told himself he was a fool to have disturbed this friendly household and given himself a miserable night with so little to go on. But there came back to him the agonized look on Rathbone’s face when Carolus had said that the police would search Coleshill Lodge. This recollection reassured him. He could not be wrong about tonight. What would Rathbone wait for? He had no reason to suspect as untrue Carolus’s remark that he was going back to Bluefield today.
Rathbone, after all, was not, as Mrs. Richards had said, at all handy about the house. There was little possibility of his having done a Dr. Crippen; Mrs. Richards was only out of the place for a week or so between her dismissal by Rathbone and her starting with the Humbells. If the flooring had been disturbed, she would have noticed it. The more Carolus considered, the more he was sure that the garden was the place, the logical, the only place. And tonight was the logical, the only time. He stared into the silver and jet of the little garden.
For two hours he remained in there, growing stiff and cold. A pity, he thought, that Rathbone was not experienced in such nightwork; he would have known better than to leave it to the small hours when even his car might be noticed and he himself questioned on his way to or from Coleshill Lodge. Breaking and entering is mostly done before midnight, when a lorry rouses no question and then moving in the streets are less rare.
At something past one there was movement. The night was very still and the shrubs beside the iron fence were not moved by any passing breeze, but in one place only. He could not see any outlines, but presently a shadow emerged from the shadows and started to cross towards the summer-house. Then it stopped. It remained motionless for rather more than thirty seconds, then turned back towards the shrubbery. Carolus sprang to the light switch but, before the brilliant lights shone from the window across the little lawn, the shadow had time to return to the bushes by the rails; but not time quite to disappear. Carolus perceived only one thing before it dived into the blackness. It was a woman.