A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Nineteen

A Bone and a Hank of Hair


When Mr. Gorringer had recovered from this he spoke peremptorily:   “Come on, Deene; let us have the whole story.”
“I’ll try,” said Carolus; “but I dare say you will find it all very long-winded and unconvincing.  However . . .  several conscientious Shakespearean critics—the term in itself is a paradox, by the way; who the hell is going to presume to criticize Shakespeare?—several of them have pointed out that each of the tragedies is the story of a man being ruined by some particular fault which grew in him like a cancer.  In Lear, it was vanity; in Macbeth, ambition; in Othello, jealousy; in Hamlet, procrastination.  It’s wildly to over-simplify, of course, but in our little story here it works out nicely.  Rathbone was lazy, bone lazy; I might almost say passionately lazy when I think of the very interesting account which Mullard gave me of his boyhood and when I recall the fire in his eyes when he said ‘I have always hated work’.  It was the key to his whole character.  He was not at first an inhuman creature.  He was a lazy young man whose interest could only vaguely be aroused by amateur theatricals.  But that vice of his grew.  I dare say he had some affection for Anne Bright when he married her.  I felt he was speaking the truth when he said so, and good sensible Mrs. Richards confirmed it.  But I think the joy of marriage to him was that with his wife’s comfortable income he need never do another stroke of work in his life.  It simply did not occur to him, as it does not occur to others in his situation, that he might outlive his wife.  She was some years younger than he was and he had never been a fit man.  Yet that is exactly what happened.  Anne became seriously ill with pernicious anæmia and, before the doctor could discover what was the basic cause of this, quite suddenly she died.
“Not long before, the sister Charlotte, who was, in the words of the period, ‘no better than she should be’, had been down to see Anne, and Rathbone had her address.  With the horror of work hanging over him—for Anne’s income would die with her—he set himself to carry out a scheme which he had already in mind, perhaps for which the co-operation of Charlotte was necessary.  This scheme was simplicity itself.  It consisted in Rathbone’s continuing to enjoy Anne’s income after her death, with Charlotte as a stand-in for Anne.
“Anne’s signature presented no difficulty.  As I knew from Mrs. Chalk, her handwriting was almost childish, and it would not be difficult for either or both of them to learn it.  There were no inquisitive relatives, since the only interested parties, members of the Chalk family, were safely in Brazil.  The trouble with the scheme was twofold—the disposal of Anne’s body and the fact that, though the sisters were alike in feature and voice, Charlotte was considerably plumper and healthier in appearance than the anæmic Anne.  But they decided to chance that. 
“These two people were drawn together, I think, by the bond of laziness, for prostitution itself is largely a form of that.  Without being too cynical, that day-to-day existence is often the result of a lack of determination or set purpose.  Both saw the advantages, an easy life on Anne’s income.  They must have talked it over at Coleshill Lodge, while Anne lay dead upstairs, and worked out their scheme.  Charlotte never returned to the girl she lived with.
“Exactly how the body was disposed of, I do not intend to imagine and I dare say you will be pleased if we do not dwell on this.  But whatever means was adopted, fire or acid or whatnot, it left the head.  There was really only one thing to be done with this and Rathbone did it.  He buried it deeply under what was then a rubbish heap.  That it was Rathbone’s own scheme initially was shewn by his dismissal of Mrs. Richards on the morning after Anne’s death.  He must have thought about it for some time, for, instead of calling in the doctor when Anne was dying or dead, he left her that night, dismissed Mrs. Richards when she arrived in the morning, and immediately summoned Charlotte.  He had already dismissed the nurse, perhaps in anticipation.  Then, since the doctor was not due till his weekly visit in the space of a day or two, Rathbone could put Charlotte in his car after dark and drive away with the stated intention of taking his wife to healthier surroundings.
“These they found in Hastings and, with some parade of arriving with an invalid wife, Rathbone moved into 47, Balaclava Grove.  ‘When they arrived here, Mrs. Rathbone was so ill that she had to be carried into the house,’ said Miss Ramble.  There was only one way of avoiding the doctor and they took it.  They let it be known that they were Christian Scientists and believed in self-cure.  This was all right till the inquisitive Miss Ramble asked them about their religion and they knew so little that they had to refer her to a Christian Science reading room.  Charlotte remained immured for ‘many weeks’ before she could appear in the ‘excellent health’ she had always, in reality, had.
“When she did emerge, Charlotte only too soon revealed the cloven hoof and sang the unforgettably ‘vulgar’ song at the piano which so shocked Miss Ramble.  She went on an occasional blind at the Star and Mitre.  She was ‘most sociable’ and affable—a person very unlike the wilting Anne.  Still, there was likeness enough to deceive Mumford’s somewhat myopic clerk Potter, who had not seen Mrs. Rathbone for years and concluded only that she had put on weight.  After they had been at Hastings for about a year, they received what at first seemed a nasty shock.  A policeman called and asked ‘Mrs. Rathbone’ to come and identify her sister’s body which had been found in Montgolfier Street.  Fortunately for them, they kept their heads and said nothing till the policeman had gone.
“What had happened, of course, was that in Charlotte’s hurried leaving of her friend, or rather in her failure to return to her after what was to have been a brief visit to her dying sister, she had left with the girl the only documents she had.  When this girl who called herself Lucille French was found dead, the police searched her possessions and discovered the letter which Mumford had written to Charlotte about her thousand pound legacy.  It was the only clue to poor Frenchy’s identity.  Heaven knows who she was or where she came from, but ‘Mrs. Rathbone’ identified her as Charlotte Bright and as such she was cremated.
“From one point of view this simplified the situation.  Charlotte was now officially dead and cremated, and Rathbone remained married to a marvellously recovered ‘Anne’, a credit to the ozone of Hastings.  This might have continued for years, and the two might have deceived even the watchful Mrs. Chalk, when she returned from Brazil, since she and Charlotte had scarcely met.  But a new cloud arose on Rathbone’s horizon.  The ease and rest which he had sought were soon dispersed again, this time more dangerously.  When all seemed to go smoothly and the income came in pleasant quarterly instalments, and nobody dreamed that there was anything odd about Mr. and Mrs. Rathbone of Balaclava Grove, and Coleshill Lodge was reoccupied and all seemed well, the most unexpected and ironic thing had to happen—Charlotte fell in love.”
“Come now, Deene,” put in Mr. Gorringer.  “You have told us that she was nothing better than a common prostitute.”
“Perhaps you haven’t made much close study of the species,” said Carolus.  “I can assure you there was nothing unprecedented about this event.  The man she fell for was a commercial traveller and very soon the Rathbone’s neighbours on both sides, and both of them chanced to be at the window on all strategic occasions, were aware of what was going on.”
“What was the commercial traveler’s name?” asked Mullard.
“Halt!” cried Mr. Gorringer.  “A word of explanation here!  Are you telling us, my good Deene, that Charlotte Bright, the sister of the deceased Anne Rathbone, the woman known as Cara, the friend of the dead girl called Lucille French, the pretended wife of Rathbone at Hastings, afterwards became none other than the unfortunate Mrs. Myberg found dead from an overdose of luminal?”
“That is what I’m telling you.  Why?”
“Incredible!” said Mr. Gorringer.  “So the ‘second Mrs. Rathbone’ was not murdered as the people of Hastings suspected?”
“Suspicions of murder in Hastings at that time, if they existed, were wholly misplaced.  Charlotte left Rathbone to live with Myberg, even, for all I know, to marry him.”
“This grows more murky and curious than I dreamed, to Mr. Gorringer with a solid shake of his head.
“How do you know that Cara Myberg was Charlotte Bright,” asked Mullard sharply.
“It was fairly obvious from the first.  Rathbone would never have dared put his scheme into action unless he had Anne’s sister to help him, and there was sufficient likeness between them to deceive the solicitors who acted for the father.  Moreover, who else could have driven away from Bolderton with him?  Who else would have identified Frenchy as Charlotte Bright?  But I had better reasons than these.  Mrs Myberg gave herself away hopelessly when I saw her.  She was supposed to be ‘Cara’, a friend of ‘Frenchy’ who had died and been identified by her sister, when I knew that in fact that sister had died years before at Bolderton, so she was in an impossible position for the first.  She was supposed only to have heard of Rathbone from her friend Frenchy, who was supposed to have met him once.  Yet the first thing she said, when I asked her if she knew Rathbone, was ‘yes’; she then tried to cover it by adding that she knew him by name.  If she had been a mere acquaintance of Charlotte, she was unlikely to know anything of Mrs. Chalk, whom Charlotte herself had scarcely met; yet as soon as I mentioned Mrs. Chalk, Mrs. Myberg said:  ‘Oh, that bitch!  What’s she got to do with it?  She scarcely knew Anne.’  This was said in that feelingly intimate tone which can only be used of a personally known and disliked acquaintance.  There were lots of other small indications during the interview I had with Mrs. Myberg.  ‘That thousand pounds,’ she said and knew that it came from the mother.  But most of all it was the state of abject terror into which she was thrown when I told her, right at the end of the interview, what I wanted to know from Maurice Myberg, and what the police would want to know.  ‘Where he met you,’ I said, quite casually, and left her in a condition of uncontrollable fear and perturbation.  For they met at Hastings and from that she would very soon be identified as ‘the second Mrs. Rathbone’ and from that as Charlotte Bright, who had helped to dispose of her sister’s body perhaps, and had certainly been guilty of fraud over a number of years.  There was no reasonable doubt about the identity of Mrs. Myberg as Cara and as Charlotte Bright.  It was all very clear up to that point.”
With some sepulchral rumblings Mr. Gorringer cleared his throat.  “It is but eleven o’clock,” he said, “yet I feel that this exhausting analysis merits for Deene some refreshments, and I suggest that you and I, Inspector, should join him.  What say you?”
There was a break of a few minutes while they were served and, as Mr. Gorringer put it, regaled themselves.  “A point which leaves me at a loss,” complained the headmaster presently, “is that recent visit by the Rathbones to the solicitors when the life interest had been disposed of.”
“As to the why of that I hope to explain in a moment.  The how of it was simple enough.  Though Charlotte or Cara had left Rathbone and was living with Myberg, she was called in for the sake of one last deception, for which she doubtless received a handsome reward, if not a half-share of the total obtained—fraudulently, of course, since Anne was dead long before—from the finance company which had taken over the life income.  That accounts for an apparently genuine ‘Mrs. Rathbone’ being at Mumford’s offices when it seemed impossible.  Incidentally it would be further proof, if that were needed, that ‘Cara’ and not ‘Frenchy’, who was dead by then, had started life as Charlotte Bright.
“An interesting fact arose from Miss Ramble’s reminiscences.  Soon after ‘the second Mrs. Rathbone’ had left Rathbone at Hastings did he himself leave the town that it caused considerable question and comment.  Let me quote Miss Ramble when I asked her if Rathbone left soon after his wife.  ‘Almost immediately’, she said, after telling me of the suggestion that he had done away with his wife.  The truth was that the quarter was nearly up and another check would be due.  Rathbone had to find a new wife as swiftly as possible and take her to a part of the country where he was not known.  There was no going back for him now.  He would be charged with the murder of Anne almost certainly, and quite certainly he would face a long term of imprisonment for fraud.  His only chance, as he saw it, was to find a substitute for Charlotte, who at least could be relied on not to talk; she was herself too deeply involved for that.  So he moved his furniture to London hoping—and his hopes were justified—that his neighbours, though watchful, might not have the bare-faced curiosity to take the trouble to trace him through that.
“I had a fairly good idea of all this when I went down to Bolderton and saw Mrs. Richards.  It was the details she gave me of Rathbone’s behaviour at the time of his wife’s illness which convinced me:  how he dismissed the nurse and how, so suddenly and seeming ‘very upset’, one morning he dismissed Mrs. Richards herself, saying he was going to take his wife to give by the sea; he would not even let Mrs. Richards clear up, but gave her three weeks’ money to go at once; he himself remained in the house some days after she had left.
“I have been lucky in this case in dealing with people who have excellent memories.  Dr. Whistley, for example, who had attended Anne Rathbone at Bolderton, was most explicit.  And my friend ‘Old Maree’ and her friend Elizabeth were very helpful.  It was ‘Old Maree’ who made me realize that ‘Cara’ was Charlotte and Frenchy an unknown girl, and not vice versa. It was through ‘Old Maree’ that I was able to trace Cara.  Her description of Cara tallied nicely with Miss Ramble’s description of the ‘second Mrs. Rathbone’.  I felt surer at every moment.  ‘Old Maree’ remembered, too, how very suddenly Cara disappeared, as she did when Rathbone put his proposition to her.  Then Mr. Villiers, formerly Schmidt, was most informative.  In his information about Rathbone as an employee, as a member of the Amateur Dramatic Society and as a lover to the uninteresting daughter of the firm’s rich chartered accountant, he aided me considerably.  It was also through him that, partly by chance, I picked up the later trail of Rathbone.  But we shall come to that.  At the moment I want to clear up all the odds and ends of my theory—for I do not regard it as more—up to the point when Charlotte or ‘Cara’ had left Rathbone at Hastings, and within a few days he himself disappeared leaving a cloud of suspicion behind him.
“You’ve done that,” said Mullard, “and, as long as you are content to call it theory, I see no harm in it.  It won’t prevent us charging Rathbone with the murder of his wife.”
“No?  You think he murdered Anne?”
“I ask you!” said Mullard.  “We find the woman’s skull buried three feet deep under concrete six years after she disappears and you ask me whether I think Rathbone murdered her.  Who else could have?”
“I don’t know. I don’t believe in her murder but, if it happened, it was not done by Rathbone. Of that I am quite certain.”
“Although he lived alone with her?  Dismissed the nurse and the daily help?  Disappeared suddenly and recently, after another sudden vanishing by another wife?  Has been dodging us all over the place?  Of course he killed her.  What possible reason can you have for doubting it?”
“The entire, absolute lack of any kind of motive.”
“There, Mr. Deene, you must allow an experienced police officer to know a little bit more than you can possibly know.  Lack of motive!  That’s an academic illusion.  Half the murders we investigate have no motive that would seem a motive to anyone but the murderer.  These psychopathic cases and sex crimes aren’t in the category of cause and motive at all.  What motive had Jack the Ripper, do you suppose?”
“In his own mind, a very adequate one I am sure.  But we’re not dealing here with a psychopath or a sexual maniac.  Rathbone is as sane as you or I.”
“You believe that Anne died naturally?”
“I am sure of it.  Her death was the very last thing Rathbone wanted.  All his crimes have been committed in trying to put right that blow of fate.”
Mr. Gorringer indicated by another stormy rumble that he was about to join in the conversation.  “Interesting as it is to a layman like myself to hear these polemics from such experts as you,” he enunciated, “I feel that I should give the opinion of a plain man.  It seems to me that the truth in the matter of the unfortunate Anne Rathbone will only be apparent when you learn the fate of her successors.  Inspector Mullard opines that Rathbone was a psychopathic case, a criminal motivated by the dim and horrible promptings of some sexual aberration.  Deene, on the other hand, claims that he was nothing of the sort.  Let us then hear the sequel.  Let us know the truth about the other sudden deaths in this case.  We know that Anne Bright’s father opposed her marriage to Rathbone and died suddenly.  We know that the woman known as ‘Frenchy’ was found dead in a room in the notorious precincts of Montgolfier Street.  We know that Mrs. Myberg has recently died as the result of an overdose of luminal.  Let us hear about these from Deene.  Above all let us know what befell the woman known as ‘the third Mrs. Rathbone’.
Carolus looked puzzled.  “But there was no ‘third Mrs Rathbone’,” he said.  “Surely that must have been obvious to you?”
“Ah,” said Mr. Gorringer, “some facetious word-play of yours, Deene.  Come now.  Tell us all.”