A Bone and a Hank of Hair
“As to the other deaths you mention,” went on Carolus, “I don’t think we need to waste much time on them. It would be an insult to the medical profession to suppose that there was anything questionable about the death of Herbert Bright, and I have not even bothered to see the doctor who signed his death certificate. Cases of food poisoning above all are most carefully scrutinized. If the faintest suspicion had existed, if the doctor who attended the old gentleman had not known exactly what caused his death, there would have been an autopsy.
“Much the same is true of ‘Frenchy’. The women who lived in that house talked glibly about the doctor giving the ‘usual’ certificate, but that is part of their characteristic self-pity. There is nothing extraordinary about the death in such circumstances of a prostitute, and it is absurd to try to connect Rathbone with it. I doubt if he knew of Frenchy’s existence, unless Charlotte casually mentioned it to him.
“But the case of Mrs. Myberg is somewhat different, and in a certain way I feel myself to blame, for it was I who indicated to her, beyond any possible doubt, that I knew of her part in this affair. I think perhaps, as I study my own motives now, that I wanted to warn her. My interest in crime begins and ends with murder; I have no wish to be responsible for the punishment of offenders against any law but the sixth commandment. Cara Myberg had assisted in an ingenious fraud and in the illegal destruction of a corpse, but she had killed no one. I am not arguing the ethics of the thing, merely stating the limitations of my interest.
“However, the wretched woman did not realize that and believed that she would shortly be convicted of several serious crimes including, perhaps, complicity in the murder of Anne, for she may have foreseen Mullard’s attitude. No doubt further investigation will reveal more, but in the meantime I am convinced that she committed suicide. The inquest has been adjourned, I believe, and there may be more evidence later. I admit that Rathbone may have been to her house shortly after her death; that again seems to be irrelevant though I am not dogmatic about it. We shall come to Rathbone’s recent behaviour in a few minutes.
“We left him driving away from Hastings in search of a secluded home and someone who would assist him in keeping up the deception which could not now be dropped. Perhaps he knew already of that grim and lightly populated area which lies in the sprawling rectangle formed by the roads between Canterbury, Dover, Folkestone and Ashford. At any rate, he found Bluefield, and in Glose Cottage just the dwelling he wanted. Soon after I began to make enquiries about the Rathbones and their life at Bluefield, I noticed a curious phenomenon: most local people knew the Rathbones by sight, most described them singly, but never the two together.
“Drubbing, for instance, the first person I met, knew Rathbone, who had been in his office. Of Mrs. Rathbone he said he did not know her and had only seen her driving the car. Then Wallbright the postmaster: “He came in now and again for cigarettes but I can’t remember her ever being in the shop.’ Then the woman who supplied teas in Bluefield Village: ‘I used to see her in church. She used to sit right at the back and nip out almost before it was over. He was a bit more sociable. He has been known to pop into the Stag. But not her. She never did any shopping in the village.’ Lofting the publican: ‘The man came in here occasionally.’ When asked if Mrs. Rathbone accompanied him: ‘Good Lord, no! She was supposed to be strictly TT.’ The postman, Fred Spender: ‘I’ve seen her. Not to say often, but more than anyone else, I guess say. Didn’t talk much. Just “thank you” when I handed her the letters. He was just the opposite. Gloomy-looking. But he would now and again exchanged a few words.’ The Rector knew Rathbone but ‘never had a chance’ to speak to his wife, though he saw her in church. Dr. Chatto was never called to the house, Rathbone only consulting him at the surgery.
“Mr. Toffins was perhaps the most revealing about this. ‘It would have made you laugh. To have seen one or the other, I mean.’ Then he went on to describe them individually. No one seemed ever to have seen them together and that for a very simple reason. They were not too people but one.”
Mr. Gorringer gave his throaty and rather patronising chuckle. “So we are to abandon all sense of reality,” he said with a glance at Mullard to see if he gave support, “and enter the realms of sheer fantasy. We are Alice passing through the looking-glass. How in the world do you suppose such a deception could be practised successfully for a day, let alone for three years?”
“It was just those three years, that passage of time, which made it feasible. The alter ego became a familiar figure. Rathbone, you see, was tired of trusting his freedom, well being and, most important, his ease, to a woman who might do such a thing as Charlotte had done and decide to leave him. Why, after all, was it necessary? He had long ago learned Anne’s signature and the only thing that could stop the quarterly payments was the announcement of Anne’s death. All he needed was to appear to be a married man. He had a good deal in his favour. He had a certain skill in make-up—enough, anyway, to avoid complicated effects or one which would take a long time to assume. He also had a mobile face which lent itself to the thing. ‘Effeminate’, the Rector of Bluefield called him, and explained it by saying that there was ‘a sort of softness or weakness’ in Rathbone’s face.
“It would be interesting to know how he obtained the wardrobe. ‘Old-fashioned’ it was described in Bluefield, and that seems to have been no exaggeration. The wig was a natural one for a middle-aged woman, and if you, Inspector, think it necessary, I can let you have several hairs from it that I found in Glose Cottage. As for teeth, he had a simple but ingenious idea. He wore his dentures as Mrs. Rathbone and left them out as Rathbone. As he had a perpetual smile as Mrs. Rathbone, the teeth were noticeable, but his own gaps, when Rathbone, were noticed, too, particularly by the Rector, who remarked on them to me. That must have changed the two faces considerably.
“The beauty of this disguise, if we must call it that, was that it was a quick-change affair. The wig, the ear-rings, the dentures, the thick spectacles, a dab or two of powder and the clothes––Rathbone could become Mrs. Rathbone, as he did once while Toffins was unloading his coal. Only one thing could give him away—his hands. He was forced to keep these in beautiful condition to be ready for their appearance as Mrs. Rathbone’s, and this did not go well with his slipshod appearance and indolent character. Dr. Chatto noticed them. ‘Extraordinary thing,’ he said, ‘the man neglected his teeth and looked generally pretty seedy, but he had small well-kept hands.’
“But with his appearance he was wise enough to change his manner. The sad-looking, shifty man, who never smiled but usually greeted people in a dismal sort of way, became the cheery-looking, perpetually smiling but almost monosyllabic woman. ‘Mrs. Rathbone’ does not seem to go on record in Bluefield as having said more than ‘thank you’ once for twice, and even that maybe faulty memory on the hearer’s part. If someone smiles and nods and makes some sound, it is probable that it would be read we collected afterwards as ‘saying thank you’. But that’s as maybe. The feminine part of the personality and no cause to say more. She never left her house except in the car. It was easy for Rathbone to open the door as himself on any occasion which might lead to difficulties, like the Rector’s ill-fated call.
“Once created, the ‘third Mrs. Rathbone’ had considerable advantages over her predecessors. She cost nothing to maintain and she could not suddenly want to go away. She did not answer back or want to go to the local like the second, or cost a lot in doctor’s bills like the first. All Rathbone had to do from morning to night and from year’s end to year’s end was to receive the quarterly check, do a little housework—and it was a little as I discovered when I moved in—and occasionally amuse himself with the ‘amateur theatricals’ of becoming Mrs. Rathbone. The life suited him admirably and looked like continuing indefinitely.
“But ‘man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward’, and Rathbone never seemed fated to enjoy the bliss of idleness for long. Just as he had worked out this pleasant routine of lotus-eating, he received a letter which at once shattered his dream. Mrs. Chalk was leaving Brazil for England and look forward to seeing her cousin Anne. She was the one person in the world who could neither be hoodwinked nor bribed, since it was her children who were losing by the scheme—had already, in fact, been losing for six years.
“Rathbone was desperate. He formed a foolish plan of cashing in as best he could on the life income and going abroad in the hope that he would not be extradited. For this he needed Cara Myberg and, as we have seen, she accompanied him to Mumford’s office. But even then he could not make up his mind. Perhaps this was a very brief visit by Mrs. Chalk, and she would not have time to search for Anne if he told her she had left him? After all, he could flee after her visit if he seem to be threatened—there would be plenty of time. So, like many indolent people, he dithered on till it was too late and Mrs. Chalk was upon him.
“But in the meantime he eliminated ‘the third Mrs. Rathbone’ by the simple process of burning her shoes, clothes and wig. But he forgot the ear-rings until the last moment, and Mrs. Chalk actually interrupted him burying them in his favourite place—under the rubbish heap. Of all these, traces have since been found. I had the ashes of the grate expertly examined and they were found to contain burnt cloth, while among them were shoemaker’s tacks. The fingerprint situation was an interesting one, since certain fingerprints left in grease or what not in a kitchen would endure for weeks and, of course, the only prints found were Rathbone’s. Although he had attempted to clean all prints, I am convinced that, if such a person as ‘the third Mrs. Rathbone’ had existed as a separate entity, some of her prints would have been there.
“Mrs. Chalk noticed that he had shaved his moustache, as he had been forced to do for the sake of his quick changes of personality. He had arranged to sell his furniture by auction giving Mrs. Chalk the reason that Anne had left him, but after her visit, and her warning that she would not leave England till she had found her cousin, he panicked and disappeared. I don’t know where he went while he grew his moustache, but not much later he turned up at the boarding-house in which he had lived more than fifteen years ago. He now became the jaunty Colonel Hood.
“It was partly by chance that I found him there. Villiers gave me the address of the place in which Rathbone had lived when he worked for Tonkins, and I went there in hope of picking up some information. I only wanted to see Colonel Hood because I thought he might have known Rathbone in the old days. I had, as you know, already met Rathbone on his nocturnal visit to Glose Cottage to recover his forgotten cheque book and, when he saw me again, he realized that once more he would have to go. But I told him something which scared the wits out of him—that the police would soon make as thorough a search of the house and garden at Coleshill Lodge as they had done at Glose Cottage. I knew pretty well what effect this would have. I was convinced from his manner that something incriminating was concealed there, and I believed that he would try to recover it.
Mr. Gorringer broke in. “Let us pause again,” he suggested, “before you give us the last details. I have not wished to interrupt you, but for some time I have noticed that Inspector Mullard’s glass is empty.”
“By all means,” said Carolus, and laid down his notes.
“I must admit, Mullard conceded, “that I begin to find your theory more tenable than it seemed.”
“But you do not know our Deene!” chuckled Mr. Gorringer. “He is keeping, I warrant, some surprise for the end. It is his way.”
“No, headmaster,” said Carolus rather wearily. “You have had all the surprises—if they were surprises—which the case offers. The rest is just odds and ends of information.”
“We shall see,” said Mr. Gorringer.
After a drink and a few deep pulls at one of his favourite cheroots, Carolus proceeded: “The present occupant of Coleshill Lodge was most helpful; in fact when he heard what I anticipated, he entered into the spirit of the thing and would like to have shared my vigil. This was rewarded, but in a way that surprised me. I never for a moment anticipated that Rathbone would assume one of his former disguises for his visit and the motive is still somewhat obscure. It must have cost him considerable trouble and expense, since he had destroyed the appurtenances of ‘the third Mrs. Rathbone’. Perhaps he feared recognition in that area in which he had lived so long, but it was scarcely likely that anyone would see and know him at one or two o’clock in the night. He was by this time in a state of such panic that he was capable of some quite crazy actions.
“It was, then, dressed as ‘the third Mrs. Rathbone’, that he entered the garden and received the severest blow he had yet suffered, for he saw that over the spot where Anne’s skull was buried a summer-house had been built. He fled and, as I fortunately realized in the morning, he went into yet deeper hiding, assuming his most intelligently considered disguise as yet. I reached St. Andrews Avenue just before he made his departure from the Lascelles Private Hotel and was able to follow him to Waterloo, from which he left for Cornwall. On the journey he ceased to be Colonel Hood and assumed a personality with which he could have remained secure in the art colonies of Cornwall for as long as his money lasted; but the wretched creature was put to fight again by the arrest of Oscar Gordon, which he rightly supposed was in mistake for his own arrest.
“Now he was in despair. The only refuge he could think of was at Cara Myberg’s, since he had no reason to think she had yet been drawn into the net of investigation. (She had visited him several times at the Lascelles Private Hotel, by the way, doubtless to talk over their common danger.) When he found her dead, he lost his head altogether and, with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse on his heels, he dropped on to his old bed at Glose Cottage in which, he remembered, he had left some tinned food. It was there that you found him this morning. I imagine his arrest came almost as a relief to him.”
“So that’s your case?” said Mullard almost kindly.
“That’s my case. There are some loose ends which you will be able very easily to tie up. For instance, on the night he visited Coleshill Lodge he came by car. Since he had not then a car of his own he must have either hired one or stolen one. That should be a confirming details, but I don’t think you’ll need even that. Rathbone will tell you the whole story quite readily and probably plead guilty to fraud and his offences in the matter of Anne’s body. But he won’t plead guilty to a murder, because he has not committed one. ”
“No surprises!” Mr. Gorringer almost shouted. “You said there would be no surprises, Deene, yet here we have the greatest surprise of all! You dangle before our eyes, as it were, already hanging on a gibbet, a mass-murderer, a monster in human shape, answerable for the fiendish crime of murdering certainly three and possibly as many as five persons in the most cold-blooded manner. Then you proceeded to demonstrate with your inimitable gift of persuasion, if not always with the logic and reliable evidence we could wish, that no murder at all has taken place. Is not that a surprise to end all surprises, to use a popular phrase? Is not that étonnant, épatant, extraordinaire ?”
“I shouldn’t have thought so,” said Carolus carelessly, as he lit another cheroot.
— THE END —