A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Five

A Bone and a Hank of Hair


Gillick kept his promise and Carolus left him at Glose Cottage for a couple of hours with this equipment because, as he said, he liked being alone when he worked.  Carolus asked no questions afterwards, knowing that in a few days he would receive a full report.  He drove Gillick back to London where, bearing the sack of cinders which Carolus had removed from the fireplace yesterday and the envelope of dust from the dressing table, Gillick re-entered his Battersea home.  “You shall hear before the end of the week,” was all he said.
Mrs. Stick had been relieved to see Carolus return on the previous evening.  “For all we was to know any different,” she observed, you might have forgotten Christmas and everything and gone off somehow after asking Dr. and Mrs. Thomas for lunch tomorrow.  I’ve got everything just as it should be.  Turkey.  Pudding.  Old English style.”
“Not so very old, said Carolus, “nor so very English for that matter.  Before that sentimental Prince Albert started all this turkey-and-Christmas-tree nonsense, it was an English feast.  Boar’s head, Mrs. Stick . . .”
“Was it really?  Well I could have done that.  Tate de sang liar row T.  Anyway, tomorrow it’s dindy far see owe marrons, and I think you’ll like it.”
Carolus dutifully ate some of that uninteresting and coarse-grained bird with his friends Lance and Phoebe Thomas but, like other people without children, found it impossible to make of the meal an ‘occasion’.  He was glad when on the Tuesday, as arranged, he could set out after lunch for Bluefield, having told Mrs. Stick that he would be in London for a few days.
“Where shall I say, if anyone wants you?” she asked with quick suspiciousness.
“Say you don’t know,” replied Carolus airily.
“Well, it wouldn’t be any more than truth, would it?  I was only saying to Stick, we’re not to know where you may be flying off to.  But we can’t none of us help our thoughts, can we?” asked Mrs. Stick, darkly.
The weather remained dull and cold, without even the animation of rain or high wind.  Carolus saw, as he approached Glose Cottage, that the front windows were open, while by the door was a woman’s bicycle.  Mrs. Luggett greeted him from her knees in the entrance passage, the linoleum of which she was wiping.
“I’ve done what I can,” she wheezed, “but it will never be what I call fresh.  There’s been fires in every room and the windows open all day, but you can’t get the nasty stuff the smell out of the place.  You should have seen the larder.”
“I did.”
“Well, I mean!  But it wasn’t only that.  There’s something seems to have got right into it like damp.  Your new bedding came this morning and I did the whole bed with disinfectant before I put it on.  Were you going to burn the other, because if so, I could do with it after I sent it to the cleaners.  Ta very much.  Mind this slippery lino or it’ll have you over.  I nearly went down myself just now and if I had I don’t know how I’d ever have got up again.”
Like so many fat people Mrs. Luggett could work hard when she wanted, and the place had been thoroughly scrubbed and polished.  Even the pictures had been down, Carolus saw, and the ugly Wilton carpets had had what Mrs. Luggett called ‘a good banging’.  Yet, as she said, the mustiness persisted.  Nothing, it seemed, could free that house of its deathly staleness.
“I’ve let the fire out in the drawing-room because I didn’t think you’d want to sit in there; but you’ve got plenty of coal here.”  ‘Here’ was the dining room.  “You needn’t be afraid of that arm-chair, because I’ve banged all the dust out of it.”
Panting and gasping, Mrs. Luggett paddled out to the kitchen and presently returned to say doubtfully that it was about time she was off.  Carolus guessed the reason for her delay.
“Would you like me to pay you by the day?” he asked.
“It would come in handy,” said Mrs. Luggett, “because I’ve got some shopping to do.”
Carolus had drawn from one of the suitcases a bottle of whisky and some Schweppes.  “Have one before you go?” he suggested when he had handed Mrs. Luggett her pound note.
“I don’t mind,” she admitted with a sigh which sounded sorrowful, but was probably ecstatic.
Carolus poured.
“Whoa!  Whoa!” cried Mrs. Luggett, loudly but not too soon.  “You’ll have me off my bike going home, then where should we be?  Well, cheerio.”
“You’ve certainly cleaned the place up,” said Carolus appreciatively.
“I told you I’d do what I could.  But it’s still not what I should call clean and never will be to my way of thinking.  I can’t make out this smell that hangs about either.  You don’t think there’s Anything under the floor, do you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because that’s what I thought it smelt like today.  I spoke to him once, you know.”
This cryptic afterthought was explicit enough to Carolus, who was accustomed to meeting pronouns unattached and without relatives in conversation of those he questioned.  She meant Rathbone.
“How was that?” asked Carolus.
“Well, as it turned out, I happen to hear they’d come from Hastings and I used to know it well.  But Rathbone didn’t at all like my mentioning it.  Spoke to me quite sharp.  Then turns round all of a sudden, gave me ten bob and said he didn’t want it known he lived at Hastings because he'd left some debts there.  He was a queer sort.  Looked at you as though he was wondering how much you knew.”
Carolus nodded encouragingly, but Mrs. Luggett’s confidences stopped there.
“This won’t do,” she said.  “I must be running along.  I’ve got my chickens to feed.  I hope you get on all right.  I shouldn’t care for it, but there you are.”  She pulled herself to her feet and made for the door.  “I’ll be along in the morning,” she said, and Carolus heard her heavy breathing till the door shut behind her.
Left alone, Carolus thought there was something foolhardy about his venture.  He could give himself no concise or logical reason for occupying this unpleasant little house.  He could not say precisely what he hoped to gain by it; yet he was convinced that it would not be fruitless.  He would make a discovery which would throw light on the whole unsavoury mystery.
The thing reeked of the abnormal, if not supernatural, which was very foreign to his realistic and practical nature.  From the first he had done no more than sense murder; he could find no rational grounds on which to believe in it.  Local opinion, Mrs. Chalk’s conviction, the uncanny nastiness of this house in which the missing couple had lived—none of this was evidence.  Yet he was proceeding exactly as though a murder had been committed.  He was surprised at himself. 
He had wound up the cheap alarm clock on the mantelpiece and could hear it steady metallic clicking as he stared into a bright clear fire.  An hour passed before he moved, then you decided to drive down to Folkestone for a meal before turning in.
That might past uneventfully and the morning brought heavy rain and Mrs. Luggett with a bag slung on the handlebars of her bicycle.
“I brought something for your breakfast,” she gasped.  “You never said anything, but I dare say you can do with it.  Seen any ghosts in the night?”
Carolus admitted that he had seen and heard nothing unusual.
“P’raps you will tonight,” she said cheerfully.
But two days passed, in which Carolus did little but examine the rubbish-heap in the back garden, turning it over slowly with a fork, but finding nothing to preserve.  He went through the papers in the drawer but, except for the cheque book, those told him nothing he did not already know.
On his third night in the house he went to bed early.  He slept with a powerful electric porch beside him for no reason except that of convenience.  Without electric light in the house he did not wish to fumble with matches and lamp if he had to get up in the night.  He slept deeply, but awoke with a start and lay listening.  He knew that something unusual had woken at him, but for a time he could hear nothing at all.  Before getting into bed, he had opened his window a little and drawn back the curtains and was aware of the brilliant moonlight of midwinter in the world outside; but this had a settled look and moreover did not shine upon his bed.  Something else had disturbed his sleep.  Then he heard the sound of a key being inserted in the lock of the front door.  Of course . . . it had been the click of the gate-latch which had broken in on his unconsciousness.
Whoever was about to enter the house was not trying to do so silently.  Lying quite still, Carolus guessed the reason.  He or she had not supposed for a moment that the house was occupied.  Carolus’s car was behind the closed door of the garage.  There was nothing outside to shew that he was here.  Was there anything inside? he wondered.  He silently moved his arm to see his watch.  Past one . . . with any luck the heat of the long-dead fire would not be perceptible to the intruder.
The door was pushed open and closed.  A torch shone in the passage.  Absolutely still, yet tensed to spring, Carolus waited.  It was all right.  The intruder had opened the door of the drawing-room and entered.  Now Carolus began very slowly and silently to rise from his bed.  Thank heaven there were no squeaks in it!  He gradually brought himself to his feet and, grasping his porch, began to move on silent naked feet towards the door.  It was cold for he wore only pyjamas.
In a few moments he stood at the door of the drawing-room and saw that the light of the intruder’s torch was on the one drawer of the writing desk which contained papers.  A hand grasped some of these.  Then Carolus switched on his own far more powerful porch.  A ‘long weasel of a man’.  Carolus had time to see a terrified face and hear an appalling screech, shrill and inhuman, before the man before him dropped to the floor.  He had fainted.
Anticlimax, Carolus thought, and yet what more natural?  In a house which he had supposed empty with such confidence that he had not even looked around before going about his business, the intruder has suddenly found himself in white light from a torch.  Small wonder that the shock had knocked him out.  Carolus went quietly to work.  He hurriedly searched the inert body but found no arms.  He then brought in the paraffin lamp and lit it.  Finally he carried a jug of water from the kitchen and threw it lightly in the man’s face.  Rathbone gasped.  As consciousness returned to him he stared at Carolus from the floor, still in abject terror.
Better sit,” said Carolus, and helped the man to a chair.  Then he brought in the whisky bottle which stood on the dining-room table and poured out a peg.  “Take it slowly,” he warned.
It struck Carolus afterwards as ironic that the first words Rathbone spoke to him were:  “Thank you.”
“Come for your cheque book, I suppose,” said Carolus chattily, as he took a seat between Rathbone and the door.  “You could scarcely write for a new one, could you?”
Rathbone did not answer.
“Where is your wife?” asked Carolus as casually as he could.
“I . . . haven’t seen her.”
“I needn’t ask where you have been or where you’re going.  The police will find you in a couple of days when they need to.  But I would like to know why you rushed away from here.”
“Who are you?”
My name’s Deene.  I’ve taken your house furnished.  I’m interested in you, Mr. Rathbone.  There are a lot of things I want to ask you.  How, for instance, your wife managed suddenly to grow so much taller after she came to live here?  She was a small woman when you married her.”
Rathbone stared as though he were in the mesmeric gaze of a snake.  He did not speak.  Perhaps, Carolus thought, he was unable to.  He looked as though he might faint again.
“Why, too, do you come here at what can fairly be called the ‘dead of night’ to look for your cheque book?”
“I forgot it, when I left.”
“I believe you.  You overlooked the last drawer.  But what was to prevent you coming openly to pick it up?  What are you concealing, Mr. Rathbone?”
Carolus examined the narrow, weak face.  Yes, this man could have murdered a woman.  Mrs. Chalk had exaggerated, but there was a timid cunning, a cowardly greed in those lines.
“This place is going to be pulled apart when it is searched,” said Carolus.  Every inch of the garden.  Every scrap of concrete.  Every floorboard.”
Still that transfixed stare which could mean everything or nothing.  The interview began to seem futile.  It was scarcely likely, whatever the circumstances, that Rathbone would answer the questions put to him, and a man so obviously frightened all the time would not give himself away on any particular point.  But presently he spoke.  “Do you think I murdered my wife?” he asked.
“I don’t know.  I don’t even know that she’s dead.  But I know you’re concealing a great deal.  And I know you’re very, very frightened, Mr. Rathbone.”
“I didn’t know there was anyone here,” he explained with sad resignation.
“It’s not that.  I startled you but your fear goes far deeper than that.  What are you afraid of?”
When Rathbone spoke it was in a strange faraway tone as though he was recalling something from the past.
“I was very fond of her,” he said, and Carolus remembered that Mrs. Chalk had reported the same words.  “You . . . No one should think I murdered her.
“Is she alive then?”
Rathbone seemed to pull himself together.
“I haven’t seen her,” he said.
“Since she left me.  Weeks ago.”
“Why did you cancel the auction of your furniture?”
“I thought . . . I hoped she might come back.”
“You didn’t tell Mrs. Chalk that.”
“You know Mrs. Chalk, then.”  It was not a question but a wistful realization of something unpleasant—another blow of fate.
“She is convinced that you have murdered her cousin.”
Rathbone, looking downwards, made a curious reply.  “She never liked me,” he said in a regretful voice.
Carolus, shivering in the damp night air, went to the entrance passage and pulled his overcoat from a book.  When he returned, he saw that Rathbone had his head in his hands in an attitude of despair.
“Who are you?  Why do you ask me questions?” Rathbone said, suddenly looking up.
“Because I am going to find out the truth.  The whole truth, Mr. Rathbone.  About the woman you married and about the woman with whom you lived here.  I don't know yet about Hastings, but I shall.  Were you there with the first or the second?  Or with someone different altogether?  I shall know in time.  I shall also know where to look for this woman, or these two or three women . . . if they are alive!”
A cunning look, almost a year, came unexpectedly to Rathbone’s face.  “You’re very sure of yourself,” he said.
“I’m very determined.”
It was a devastating question and Carolus knew it.  “Because I’ve made it my business to find out,” he and some rather feebly.
“I wish you joy of that,” said Rathbone lugubriously.
The clock on the dining-room mantelpiece was audible as the two men sat without speaking.  Then Rathbone did an unexpected thing.  He stood up and said, “I’m going now.”  There was a finality in the words which startled Carolus.  This man can be resolute, too, when he chose.
There was nothing to be done about it.  Hold him by force?  Follow him?  Get in touch with the police?  All impossible and rather absurd.  Carolus did not even know whether the police were looking for Rathbone, and it was a mile to the public telephone in the village square at Bluefield.  He had no right to interfere with the other’s movements and, indeed, no desire to do so.  As he had said, Rathbone could be found if necessary.  Somewhere he had to cash those checks, somewhere to carry on his queer unhealthy existence.  So Carolus made no protest.  At the front door Rathbone turned.  “I didn’t murder Annie,” he said.  “I never harmed her.  I was fond of her.”
Then slowly he opened the door and stepped into the sparkling night.  Carolus heard the click of the gate, surely the sound which had woken him from sleep an eventful hour ago.  He bolted the front door, but before going back to bed he pulled out his head handkerchief and very carefully picked up the glass which Rathbone had held and which would shew a splendid impression of his fingerprints.  He would send that tomorrow to Gillick.