A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Eight

A Bone and a Hank of Hair


Balaclava Grove, as its name suggested, was a row of small houses built just after the Crimean War.  Apartments were let in some of them, others were unplacarded.  They were overshadowed by the high walls of a large commercial hotel which backed on to them.
Carolus found Number 47 but, instead of bringing its bell, tried that of the Number 45 next door.  After he had waited some time, the door was opened a few inches and a feminine face became partially visible.
“I wanted to make an inquiry,” began Carolus.
“We don’t answer opinion polls.  My husband says it’s a waste of time.”
“It wasn’t that . . .”
“We never buy at the door.”
“I assure you . . .”
“We don’t believe in hire-purchase.”
“No.  No.  It’s just . . .”
“Besides, we get all our things from the Co-Op.”
“I dare say.  I . . .”
“Well, what do you want?  I’m doing my ironing.”
“I wished to inquire about some people called Rathbone who lived at 47 next-door.”
“How long ago?”
“About three years.”
“We’ve only been here since the summer.”
“I see.  I’m sorry.”
“But the door did not shut.”
“I tell you what.”
Carolus waited.
“The lady on the other side, Number 49, might be able to tell you something.  She’s been here a long time.”
“Thank you.”
It was always the same.  Once the floodgates were open, there was no stopping the flow.  The door remained almost closed, but the voice continued:
“If not, them in the house now, Number 47 I mean, ought to know something.”
“Yes.  I’ll inquire.”
“Of course, you could always go to the police station.”
But the lady at 49 would know.  She’s been here a good many years.”  The dark inquisitive eyes continue to stare from the obscurity behind the door.  “You’ll find her at home now.  She doesn’t go out to the afternoon.”
“It’s very kind of you.”
“You want to give a good knock because she may be right upstairs.”
“Of course.”
“I expect she knew these you’re talking about.  She seems to know everything.”
“I don’t say she’s nosy, mind you, but she’s lived here a long time.”
There was only one thing to be done, Carolus decided.  He must forget his manners and simply walk away.  He gave a quick nod and went.  As he knocked at Number 49, however, the face which had remained hidden obtruded from the doorway of Number 45. 
“That’s right,” his late informant said, “give a good knock.  She’ll be down in a minute.”  It was evident that she intended to see the meeting she had suggested safely made.  “I should knock again if I was you; she may be up the back.”  Carolus did.
“She ought really to have a bell, like we have got.  It’s awkward, waiting about, isn’t it?”  It was, watched by those dark eyes.
“I’m sure she’s not out.  I should have seen her go.  She always comes by this way.”  Carolus waited.
“You can’t hear the dog barking, can you?”
Just then the door of Number 49 was flung open wide and Carolus faced its occupant.  Miss Ramble was a sinewy person with an ochreous complexion and chaotic clothes.  Carolus had the impression—he thought afterwards that he must have been mistaken—of lace round the thin neck and a display of old-fashioned jewellery.  There was a sort of aqueous fire in the eyes and altogether too much fluttering movement.
“Oh, good morning,” began Carolus.  “I have a small favour to ask.  I believe you may have been acquainted with some people called Rathbone.”
Miss Ramble looked Carolus in the eyes, then with a gesture said:  “Come in!”
He was shewn, ushered rather, into a room which made him gape.  It could not have been arranged, he realized, for a joke or a film set, it must be real.  There were pampas grass and antimacassars, beadwork stools and papier-mâché tables; there were ornamental china and plush curtains, wallpaper with pink lilies-of-the-valley threaded by green ribbon with bunches of yellow violets; there was a picture rail from which hung by copper wire a selection of mezzotint engravings of the works of Lord Leighton and Holman Hunt; there was a crocheted tablecloth over a plush one and there was an ebonized upright piano.
“Sit down!” cried Miss Ramble, indicating with a sweeping gesture a chaise-longue covered in a patchwork.  “The Rathbones?  Indeed I was acquainted with them.  It seems only yesterday that they were in this room.  We were, for a time, something more than neighbours.”
“Only for a time?”
“Yes.  Towards the end there was a rift.  I blame myself for giving confidence too readily.  My weakness.  But tell me, why do you come to enquire from me about Rathbones?”
“They have disappeared.”
Miss Ramble received this as though it were a shock, violently jerking back her head.  “Terrible!  You mean they have an absconded?”
“I don’t know.  A relative of Mrs. Rathbone’s has asked me to trace them.  So I have come to you.”
“But,” said Miss Ramble, her every word spoken with emotions and emphasis, “it is three years since I saw them!”
“Yes.  Still, I would ask you, if you will, to remember what you can about them.  It will certainly help.  Could you, for instance, describe them?”
“I could!  He was of middle height, with a small moustache.  His hair was greying and there was a strange watchfulness in his rather melancholy eyes.  It was not a handsome or a forceful face.”
“And Mrs. Rathbone?”
“She was a dumpy little thing.”
“And stout?”
“Did she smile often?”
“She had a very cheerful disposition and laughed easily, but I don’t think she smiled particularly often.”
“You describe them very well.  I should like you just to go on tell me what you can remember of them as it comes to you.”
“I will.  They lived next door for about three years.  They were Christian scientists.”
“Oh, yes.  Don’t you know that?  When they arrived here, Mrs. Rathbone was so ill that she had to be carried into the house from the motor-car.  For many weeks she was not seen, but her husband cared for her so well that, when she at last emerged, she seemed in excellent health.  Thereafter, while they were here, neither of them had a day’s illness.  I was impressed.  I asked them about their religion, but they did not seem anxious to discuss it, and referred me to a Christian science Reading Room, where my interest wilted and died.”
“So they never called a doctor?”
“Never.  It was against their principles.”
“Was there anything of the recluse about them?”
“Not in the least.  On the contrary, Mrs. Rathbone was most sociable and her husband seemed to enjoy our little occasions of merriment in his quiet way.  My voice had not then deserted me and many was the evening when I rendered them the ‘songs and snatches’ of my earlier days.  It was, in fact, over one such occasion that our memorable rift occurred.”
“How was that?”
“I cannot bear vulgarity.  The witty, the lively, even, within reason, the risqué, I will accept, but vulgarity, no!  One evening Mrs. Rathbone suddenly rendered a song at the piano which I blush to remember.  I felt bound to tell her that it was offensive to me and she laughed in a very coarse way and made a quite unforgivable remark.  I asked them to leave the house.”
“That was towards the end of their stay here?”
“Within six months of it, I should say.  I bore them no ill will.  I realize that to some people I should seem intolerant.  But life is too beautiful a thing to be cheapened by vulgarity.  You may smoke if you wish.”
“Thank you.  This was the first time that anything of the sort had occurred?”
“With me, yes.  But I had heard Talk.”
“Mrs. Rathbone was not, I fear, quite what I should call a lady.  Her manner of dress and her bearing left something to be desired.  Although I myself saw no sign of it, for she would scarcely reveal such a thing to me, there was a rumour that she sometimes drank more than was good for her.  I do not listen to gossip, but I could not avoid hearing that she went to a certain public house called the Star and Mitre.  Certainly there was something rubicund about her which suggested intemperance.”
“I see.”
“I do not believe she was an ill-intentioned woman.  Indeed she was considered affable and friendly.  But she lacked refinement.”
“Her husband had no occupation while they were here?”
“None.  They had private means, I understood.  I sometimes thought Mr. Rathbone was rather an indolent person.”
“Did they ever speak of any relatives?”
“Not when I first knew them.  But about a year after they came here, Mrs. Rathbone’s sister died in London.  There was something a little curious about that, because I am almost sure they first had the news from a policeman.”
“Yes!  About four o’clock one day I chanced to be seated near the window.  I was catching the last of the light for some petit-point embroidery I was doing.  I distinctly saw a policeman call at their house.  When I met them later that evening, I did not venture to remark on what I have seen, but I detected something uneasy in their manner.  Next day they left for London, and on the following day they were absent again.  They told me afterwards that they had attended the cremation of Mrs. Rathbone’s sister.  I did then mention the policeman’s call and they dismissed this quite peremptorily.  To do with their motor-car, they said; but I could not help wondering whether the sister’s death had not been . . . irregular, in some way.”
“A very natural supposition.  And you were quite right.  Mrs. Rathbone was called to identify her sister’s body.”
“I feared something of the sort.  It is consistent with . . . the Other.”
Carolus waited.
“You know, of course, that there was considerable speculation about their manner of leaving here?  You don’t?  Of course it may all be no more than hearsay.  I should not wish to repeat mere gossip.”
“In a case like this, mere gossip may be of the greatest importance.”
“Then I will tell you!  The house beyond theirs was then occupied by a very worthy person who let apartments during the summer—a Mrs. Bishop.  It was from her that I gathered the extraordinary story.  How, you may be asking yourself, did I come to associate with her?  She was of quite humble origin, but a very well-behaved, respectful woman and I saw no reason to treat her unkindly.  She would occasionally come here and stay for a cup of tea.  She it was who first told me that there was trouble between the Rathbones.  It appeared—she explained this as delicately as possible—it appeared that Mrs. Rathbone had formed a liaison with another man.  A commercial traveller of some kind, I gathered.
“I did not require all the squalid details.  I was thankful that I had put an end to my acquaintance with the Rathbones before this took place; but Mrs. Bishop insisted that the two had been seen together on the promenade late at night and that Rathbone was extremely angry about it.  This continued for some weeks.  I myself saw nothing that could be thought in any way improper, though one evening when I happened to be near my bedroom window a car drew up which was certainly not the Rathbones’ car and Mrs. Rathbone stepped out of it.  I heard her call good night to the occupant of the car before it was driven away.  Then she entered the house.  In itself nothing, you will say.  But wait!”
Carolus waited.
“Three days elapsed, then towards dusk I saw both the Rathbones leaving the house, bearing suitcases.  By a coincidence I was just stitching a small tear in my lace curtain at the time.  They placed these suitcases in their car and drove away.  From that moment onwards I never saw Mrs. Rathbone again!”
Giving Miss Ramble all his attention but not interrupting, Carolus nodded gravely.
“It was some days before I saw Mrs. Bishop.  She, too, it appeared, had chanced to be glancing from the window when the suitcases were brought out.  She said that Rathbone had not returned till late that night and when he came he was alone.  She met him in the street the following day and he seemed, in her words, ‘very upset’.  ‘My wife has left me!’ he said.  Mrs. Bishop suggested that of course she would soon be back and he said:  ‘Yes, yes,’ in an abstracted way and walked on.  Strange, you will own.”
“Not necessarily.  Wives do leave husbands for other men.”
“That was not the general interpretation of the circumstances.  It was whispered . . . I hesitate to tell you this . . .”
“I dare say I can guess.  They said that Rathbone had done away with his wife, I suppose.”
“They did!  It was quite a scandal in the town.  The circumstances were unusual.  So sudden, you see.”
“How, I wonder, was he supposed to have disposed of the body?”
“That was the mystery; but it was pointed out that there is always the sea.  Then someone claimed to know that Rathbone had once been employed by a firm of wholesale chemists.  It was suggested that acid might have been used.”
“I wonder why.  After all, so far as anyone knew, here was a wife leaving her husband with his full knowledge, if not consent.  Why should they have made such sinister suggestions?”
“I think, perhaps, it was something about Rathbone himself.  I am not saying that I was party to these rumours, but I did think, looking back on my acquaintance with him, that Rathbone could have been that kind of man.  One reads such dreadful cases in the papers.”
“I see what you mean.”
“However, since as you now tell me the two have been together again . . .”
“I did not quite say that.  Rathbone has been living in a lonely part of the country with a woman whose description is quite unlike that you give me of his wife.  She has disappeared in much the same circumstances.”
“How very horrible.  The man must be a monster!”
“He left here soon after this happened?”
“Almost immediately.  His furniture was removed by a London firm.  Mrs. Bishop regretted afterwards that she had not made a note of the name.  We have heard nothing of him or of her from that day to this.”
“I am most grateful to you, Miss Ramble.  Your information will be very valuable.  By the way, did Mrs. Rathbone wear ear-rings?”
“What was her age, would you say?”
“No more than forty, I should guess.”
“And you are certain that she was short and stout?”
“Quite certain.”
Carolus rose and took a last regretful look at the room in which they had been sitting.  Those Japanese fans!  That walnut whatnot!  He might never see, in its natural state as it were, such a room again.
“Rubicund, you say.”
“Yes.  Even a hint of purple sometimes.  Full cheeks; indeed, as I have said, heavy altogether.  I remember noticing—though it is not pleasant to discuss such things—that the calves of her legs were unbecomingly solid.”
“She never wore glasses?”
“Never.  Not even to read music.”  Miss Ramble seemed to have something more to say but found difficulty in it.  “I hesitate to suggest,” she began; “I was just wondering . . . if it would not be too much trouble . . . I should be most interested to hear what transpires.  If you could kindly tell me any developments as they occur . . . Mrs. Bishop has moved to Sebastopol Avenue, but we still see one another occasionally and she would be glad to receive any news, too, I know.”
Carolus gave some vague assurance and moved to the door.  Miss Ramble let him out with a dramatic gesture of farewell.  But he had forgotten Number 47, outside which is cast still stood.  As he passed, its door was opened, this time quite widely.
“You found her all right, then?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I thought you would.  She doesn’t often go out till the afternoon.”
“Well, I’m glad you found her in.”
“You don’t want to come and see someone and not find them, do you?”
“I mean, it’s such a nuisance when you’ve come a long way.”
Carolus started his car and with a cheerful wave of his hand left Balaclava Grove behind.
But he was not feeling cheerful.  Even more than in the stuffy gloom of Glose Cottage he was filled with a rising sense of disgust.  Remembering the shifty face of Rathbone gave him a feeling of physical nausea.  He knew instinctively that there would be more to come.  Tall and heavy, short and plump—but the original Mrs. Rathbone had been described as a skinny little thing.  He began to wonder where it would end.