A Bone and a Hank of Hair
Carolus opened the window and it jumped lightly out. But he knew he would not be in time, nor was he greatly concerned. He had not seen enough to recognize the figure, but he was pretty sure of its identity. He went to the point in the shrubbery through which the woman had disappeared and, pushing his way between damp branches, reached the railings. The little street was not well lit, but well enough for him to see that no one was in sight. As he stood there hesitating, he heard an engine started up and a car driven away. That was all right. He had learned what he expected but hated to learn.
Then he walked exactly is the woman must have done on entering the garden, as the shadow had moved, from the shrubbery across the lawn. Carolus stopped at the point where the shadow had stopped. As he had guessed, it was from here that the structure of the summer-house became apparent. It looked solid in the moonlight, like an old loggia. When he returned towards the house he saw that Humbell was at the window from which he had jumped.
“I’ll open the garden door for you,” said Humbell, but Carolus entered as he had come.
“What was it?” asked Humbell.
“Our visitor,” said Carolus.
“Yes. Gone. Not to return. Never to return, I am sure. Mr. Humbell, what was in that corner of the garden before you built the summer-house there?”
“Nothing but a rubbish heap. Why?”
“I think that’s our spot.”
“Under it, you mean?”
“That’s awkward. It’s too heavy to be lifted whole, even if we brought in a team to do it. Perhaps we can get the floorboards up.”
“I’m afraid I’ve brought you nothing but trouble, Mr. Humbell.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It would have come anyway, wouldn’t it? The police would have got on to this before long. And I am interested.”
“You’re very long-suffering. I’m afraid Mrs. Humbell must be put out.”
“Humbell smiled. “My wife is never put out,” he said proudly.
“Lucky man! Do you know it’s nearly two o’clock?”
“Yes. We must get some sleep. You’ll be all right on the settee?”
After a bath and a cheerful breakfast with his hosts, Carolus could view his problem with more detachment.
“I have been thinking,” said Humbell. “Mrs. Richards’s son-in-law is a carpenter. We might walk round there after breakfast and see whether he would like to tackle those floorboards.”
“The only thing I insist on,” said Carolus, “is that all expenses in the matter should be mine.”
“I don’t see why,” said Humbell. “That floor is a bit rotten, I dare say, and I should have had to replace it some time. However, we’ll discuss that when we know more.”
Mrs. Richards’s son-in-law, a stalwart man who appeared to think deeply over his work, gave much the same opinion. “It wouldn’t be worth replacing these,” he said. “Nor the joists. They’re too far gone. We could soon have them up and, if you like to get the material, I’ll replace them next week-end.”
So the earth under the summer-house was laid bare. “Who is going to turn the first sod?” asked Humbell when he brought a spade. He did not wait for an answer, but began to dig in a steady professional sort of way, throwing the earth out on the lawn as he did so. Carolus raked this through as it fell. Then Mrs. Richards’s son-in-law took a turn with the spade and afterwards Carolus. But there was no need to search carefully through the upturned earth. The discovery, when it came, was a gruesome one which needed no sifting of the ground. It was a human skull.
Mrs. Richards’s son-in-law stood staring down at it as Hamlet stared at another skull. Humbell said, “Good God!” and looked as though he were going to be sick. To Carolus it occurred that he had never seen an example of this so often depicted thing, and he fervently hoped that he would never do so again. It was grotesque beyond all imagining. Skull and cross bones, skull in plaster labelled memento mori, skulls in pictures were clean and polished things of Ivory. This was like an old bone long buried by a dog, rotten and muddy and horrifying. ‘That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once’ remembered Carolus, his imagination half with the grave-digger at Elsinore.
“Don’t let the wife see it,” said Humbell, pulling himself together. “Wait while I get a sack.”
“We’ll let the police do any more digging they want, said Carolus, when that vacantly grinning thing was out of sight. “It must of course be reported to them straight away. Will you ’phone, Mr. Humbell? I have something urgent to do.”
“Yes. I’ll ’phone.” He spoke firmly and was quite himself again. “I’ll have to tell my wife first.”
Carolus waited only to grab his coat and say that he would return later. He then hurried round to the garage in which he had left his car. Within ten minutes of the discovery he was travelling at an illegal speed towards Barnes. He had remembered that there was a telephone booth at the corner of St. Andrews Avenue and, leaving his car in a side-turning, he made for this. He dialled the number of the Lascelles Private Hotel and recognized the voice of the proprietress.
“Could I speak to Colonel Hood?” he asked.
“Well, you’re just in time, because he had this minute ’phoned for a taxi. He’s in a hurry but I’ll call him.”
Carolus put down the receiver while she was doing this and waited in the booth from which he could see the entrance to the Lascelles Private Hotel. In a few minutes the taxi came and Rathbone emerged carrying a suitcase. This was a tricky moment. Carolus could not go to his car till he saw which way the taxi went, but he knew he might lose it while he was starting and perhaps turning. He was lucky in that the taxi was an old one with, it seemed, an unhurried driver, and it easily found it again in the long road running towards Hammersmith. From there he followed it, though with more difficulty. It was going, he imagined, to one of the big railway stations, but it was not until it began to cross Waterloo Bridge that he could be certain which one. At that point he took a chance and, passing it, had time to park his car before it arrived.
He did not think himself particularly clever in this piece of deduction. A suitcase and a taxi meant one of two things—a London station or a London address. The chances were about seventy per cent in favour of a station, and they became ninety per cent on Waterloo bridge. Rathbone was not brilliant, but he was not fool enough to leave a direct trail, which the taximan could describe afterwards, from his old address to a new one. Anyhow it worked. With a hastily-purchased copy of the Observer as cover, he watched Rathbone, a very unmilitary-looking Colonel Hood, make for the window of the booking office from which tickets to the West Country were obtained. Carolus dared not follow closely enough to hear the name of the station for which Rathbone booked, but he noted that the man had no hesitation in asking for it. He had evidently planned this departure.
Carolus bought a ticket to Land’s End, and was relieved to see that Rathbone called a porter for his bag. There was a brief conversation between Rathbone and the porter, after which Rathbone walked over to the buffet and Carolus could ask the quarter, after tipping him, which train his client was taking. It was the three-ten. Rathbone’s ticket was to Pentragon Bay.
“Seems to want to do it on the cheap,” said the porter. “Hasn’t got a sleeping berth anyway.” Carolus found a corner seat on the platform side in a compartment near the back of the train, from which he presently saw Rathbone go by. He waited until the train was out of London before he started on his way down the corridor, and then did so with the greatest caution. The train was far from full. There was no great rush to Cornwall in January and Sunday was not the most popular day for travelling. When Carolus eventually came on Rathbone, he saw that there were two others in the compartment, all three having taken corner seats.
He was uncomfortably hungry, for he had eaten nothing since breakfast at Coleshill Lodge, and now went to the Restaurant Car for tea and a quantity of buttered toast. As he returned to his place he looked in at Rathbone’s compartment, the whereabouts of which he had carefully noted, and saw that not only have you disappeared, but that the suitcase which he had brought from Barnes and which had been on the rack over his head had gone, too.
Since the train had not stopped, Carolus felt no dismay, but began another long walk through the corridor in search of his man. When he eventually found him, it was with a shock of surprise and something like admiration. The Anthony Eden hat, the sharp, white moustache, the meat suit were gone, and Rathbone sat alone in a compartment near the engine, clean-shaven, wearing corduroys and a beret and smoking a large pipe. Evidently he had assumed a character suitable to his future surroundings. A writer? Painter? Hand-press printer? Someone, anyway, who would fit into the art colony of Pentragon Bay. On the train he was already far less noticeable then he had been as Colonel Hood.
So this escape route had been long prepared. Perhaps he had hired a studio or a bungalow on the cliffs. Perhaps he had manuscripts or an easel waiting for him. What name, para wondered facetiously, would he adopt this time? Stephen something or would it be Evelyn? Did he intend to spend the rest of his life eating saffron cake and talking about Francis Bacon or Christopher Fry? At any rate he was safe enough where he was. No need to watch him till they approached Cornwall. He could not be going anywhere else in that rig. Carolus would be able to have dinner and sleep in peace tonight, knowing that Graham Auden or Angus Ruarc or Benjamin Tynan or whoever it was would be safely there in the morning.
And he was. When Carolus wandered a long half an hour before the train would reach Pentragon, Rathbone had already started a conversation—surely about Lawrence Durrell or the Russian theatre or Henry Moore—with a noisily dressed character wearing a red beard. It was certainly an effective disguise which he had assumed in the train lavatory yesterday. Nothing in itself artificial. No false hair or colour or anything difficult to maintain. He had shaved his moustache, combed his hair so that it spread from under the beret, and changed his clothes—nothing else. Yet Colonel Hood had ceased to exist and Sacheverel Amis or whatnot sat in his place. In the region to which he was travelling, one might as well look for a needle in a bottle of hay as seek one artistic or literary character above the rest.
The difficulty for Carolus would come at Pentragon station. There would perhaps not be many to alight and Carolus in his quiet suit would stand out from the bearded throng. It was essential now that Rathbone should not recognize him. Rathbone must be left in the serenist of false security in his new home. Carolus asked a passing ticket-collector what was the next after Pentragon Bay and found it was Polstock Head, which lay by road only ten miles beyond it. He decided to remain in the train and return in the evening to Pentragon Bay. This would allow Rathbone time, perhaps, to give an indication of where he intended to stay.
He lunched at the Tredinnick Arms and drove back in the late afternoon to Pentragon. He decided to chance going into the Porthaziel Hotel, the only local pub, in the hope of beating the information he wanted without revealing his presence in the town. He glanced uneasily at the customers, as well he might—they looked like a party of moujiks about to blow up a landowner’s home or produce a balalaika and start stamping. But Rathbone was not among them. Conversation was emphatic and gesticulatory.
“One cannot dogmatize about non-objective art,” Carolus heard.
“The stellar purity of Poliakoff,” said a shriller voice.
“The spacelessness of Malevick,” brought in a bass rumble.
“May I have a whisky and soda, please?” asked Carolus humbly.
The landlord looked on him as on a brother and moved up to the corner where Carolus stood, leaving his barmaid to serve the drinks.
“Cold, isn’t it?” he said, with a marked determination to keep the conversation to its accepted course as between landlord and customer.
“It is cold,” said Carolus.
“You’ll excuse me, but you’re not a painter, are you?”
“Nor yet a sculptor?”
“You don’t make things with wire and plasticine and old door-handles and call ’em female figures?”
The landlord looked approvingly at him, then asked more anxiously: “Not a writer, are you? No poetry or anything like that?”
“Hand-printing? Woodcuts? Anything in that line?”
“Not music, is it?”
“I’m not in the least artistic, I’m afraid.”
“Well, have a drink with me,” invited the landlord.
“I don’t mind,” said Carolus, giving his answer in the traditional form.
“Hark at ’em!” said the landlord. Carolus did.
“Not that Berg’s Wozzeck can be considered anything but bourgeois . . .” he heard.
“I see a certain affinity between Tippett and Tchelitchev.”
“Not Mussorgsky. Not Khovantschina.”
“Oh, God! Oh, Montreal!” said the landlord.
“Get many visitors at this time of year?” asked Carolus, keeping to accepted channels.
“They never stop. Oh, you mean in the hotel. No. We could do with a few more. I’ve had a bit of bad luck this morning. There was one turned up from town. Admittedly he wore a beret and corduroys, but I didn’t think he looked as though he’d be quite such a pain in the arse as this lot. When he got talking, I mean. Came off the London train and had a suitcase so I thought you meant to stay. He was going to book a room when one of these—looked like the bearded lady at the fair—offered to let him his studio.”
“Telling me. ‘I have Penzanvoze Cottage,’ says this one who wanted a shave; ‘I was thinking of going down to Torremolinos for a few months.’ The one who’d got off the train said his name was Osbert Auden and asked what the rent would be and, before I knew where I was, he’d taken the place and gone off there, suitcase and all. What do you think of that?”
“Irritating. Have a drink?”
“Thanks. I need it.”
So did Carolus. ‘Panache’, he heard. ‘Ustinov’, ‘Beatniks’, ‘Bertrand Russell’, ‘empiricism’, ‘polymorphism’, ‘Sitwell’, ‘Perelman’, ‘epistemology’, ‘Simenon’, ‘Blomdahl’, ‘tonality’, ‘Janacek’, and ‘Heron’. But he had the information he wanted.
He asked the landlord whether he could have a room for the night, to leave by an early train in the morning.
“I wonder whether I can possibly get out of this crowd,” said Carolus, who feared that Rathbone might come in. The landlord was sympathetic.
“I don’t blame you. I’ve had two years of it and I am getting back to the Smoke. You never know there when you’re going to be run in for keeping a disorderly house, but at least you don’t have to listen to this lot. Yes, there’s a little sitting-room with a fire in it at the top of the stairs when you can get a bit of peace. The wife’s away at the moment. You’d like something to eat, I expect?”
Carolus followed the landlord, leaving a murmur of polysyllables and momentarily popular names.
Next morning, before a beard was in evidence, he walked to the station and caught his train. He realized as he travelled back to London that he had been lucky. He had gone on saying that, whenever Rathbone was wanted, he could be found, but was it true? One more in this galère would rouse no attention. It might well have taken the police weeks to run him to earth. But safely in Carolus’s pocket case was the note ‘Osbert Auden’, Penzanvoze Cottage, Pentragon Bay, Cornwall. Carolus could now return to Newminister and await developments. It would not be long before a dentist and identified that skull so that now at least Carolus had a corpse to do with—or all that mattered of a corpse.