A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Nine

A Bone and a Hank of Hair


Carolus had thought it would be necessary to stay in Hastings for some days, for he had not foreseen the dramatic and informative Miss Ramble.  He was satisfied that he had the facts he needed but conscientiously determined not to depend on a single witness, and called that evening at the Star and Mitre where the landlord remembered the Rathbones well and confirmed most of Miss Ramble’s details.  He reached his home after the Sticks had gone to bed, but faced his fiery little housekeeper over breakfast next morning.
“So it was you came in last night!” she said.  “I was only saying to Stick we weren’t to know.  It might have been anyone.”
Carolus attacked his kedgeree.
“Only we should like to know,” said Mrs. Stick.
“Whether you’ll be staying, now you’re back.  I thought it was the sea air you were going to Hastings for.”
“Yes.  I shall be staying some time, I think,” said Carolus.  “But I shan’t be in to lunch or dinner today and I may stop tonight in town.”
“It’s no good my getting anything in, then, is it?” asked Mrs Stick as she left Carolus.  She seemed perplexed more than put out, he thought absently, as he picked up The Times and turned straight to the crossword.
He knew that he must next go to Bolderton, the place in which the Rathbones had lived before they moved to Hastings.  He felt something like dread at the prospect.  He was fairly certain that he would hear yet another description of another Mrs. Rathbone.  But he went.  He drove through London without more delay than usual, reflecting that a horse carriage sixty years ago would have covered the distance from Blackheath to Barnet in about a third of the time he took.  He found Bolderton a region of new houses, thick with television aerials, busy with self-service shops, humming with motor-scooters.  Deep in a maze of almost uniform streets an old high wall still rose, behind which Coleshill, once a lonely manor house, was maintained as a rehabilitation centre for juvenile delinquents.  It was now called Coleshill College.  Much of the manor’s grounds had been built over, and what had once been the lodge was separated from the college playing-fields by another row of red-brick family cells named Aneurin Road; but the Lodge had miraculously kept its character and square of garden.  Between this garden and the road was a row of iron hurdles and shrubs.  He felt that Mrs. Chalk had exaggerated in calling it a ‘gloomy little house’, but after Glose Cottage he was apt to find any dwelling cheerful by comparison.
A pleasant, middle-aged woman came to the door and answered his questions in a businesslike way.  She and her husband had taken the lodge soon after the Rathbones had vacated it.  They had never seen the Rathbones, but had heard a good deal about them from Mrs. Richards, the char whom they had inherited from the previous occupants.  Mrs. Richards had remained with them till quite recently, but no longer went out to work.  Carolus could find her at 14 Jupp Street, near the station.
“My husband might be able to tell you more than I can,” said the lodge’s occupant.  “He saw the estate agents at the time.  I’m sure he would be quite willing to give you any information if it will help to trace someone missing.  He gets home about five, but six-thirty would be the best time.”
Carolus expressed his thanks and went off to find Mrs. Richards, whom he thought rather a pretty old thing, with very white hair and rosy cheeks.  She lived with her daughter and son-in-law.  Everyone seemed intelligent and helpful, he reflected.  There was nothing in the least dim or macabre about Bolderton.
“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Richards when she had asked him into the living-room of her daughter’s home, “I remember the Rathbones well.  I worked for them for some years just after the war.  You say they’ve disappeared?  That’s what they did from here in a way.  They hadn’t been long married when they came to Bolderton.  They seemed quite comfortably off, but I believe it was her money.  Her father had died a year or so before and, though I never heard any details, I think he had left her everything.
“Mr. Rathbone was older than his wife.  He wasn’t what you’d call a healthy-looking man.  Rather weedy, I’d say.  It really got on my nerves to see him hanging about all day doing nothing.  He didn’t seem to have any interests, even.  He wasn’t a man who could turn his hand to anything in the house.  Couldn’t even fit a new washer on a tap.  He’d sit about in slippers all the morning, reading the paper and smoking.  I used to have to get him out of his arm-chair.  ‘I want to Do this room now, Mr. Rathbone,’ I’d say, and he’d have to move.  But I think he was fond of his wife in a way.  There were never any words between them and when she became ill later on he looked after her very attentively.  Mrs. Rathbone . . .”
“Excuse me,” Carolus interrupted.  “Would you mind describing her?”
“What she looks like, you mean?  There was nothing of her, as you might say.  A little peeked thing she was.  Very nice to speak to, mind you.  Always considerate and that.  But very quiet.  Rather sad looking, I always thought.  She didn’t seem to know how to enjoy herself.”
“They didn’t go out much?”
“Only to the cinema sometimes.  It was before the telly had come in as it has.”
“Did either of them drink?”
“He liked a little sometimes.  Oh, never too much, but he did pop into the Greyhound now and again.  She never did.  When the doctor ordered her to have a glass of milk-stout in the mornings it was as much as she could do to swallow it.”
“They had the doctor, then?”
“Oh, yes.  Dr. Whistley it was.  He’s still in the town if you want to see him.  He used to come about once a week to see Mrs. Rathbone when she was ill.  Pernicious anæmia, they called it.  She became a proper invalid and stayed in her room all day.  Sometimes she would sit up for an hour or two but you could see it was a strain.  At one time it really looked as though she wasn’t going to live.  They had to send for her sister.”
“What was the sister like?”
“I never saw her.  She went there one day after I come home from work.  But the nurse they had at that time told me next morning you’d never have believed she was Mrs. Rathbone’s sister from the way she behaved.  I shouldn’t like to repeat what the nurse said about her, but it wasn’t very nice.  Then, after that, Mrs. Rathbone must have been better, because they got rid of the nurse.  I never saw much difference in her, ill or well, myself, but then we have a healthy family and, although I’ve brought up three, I’ve never had much experience of illness.  Mrs. Rathbone always looked the same to me, poor thing.”
“You said something which suggested that they left suddenly.”
“Yes.  They did.  It was a funny business altogether.  I got there one morning at my usual time and found Mr. Rathbone down in the kitchen as though he’d been waiting for me.  I could see he was upset about something and it came to me he was trying to ask me to leave—after I’ve been with them all that time.  He said it was the house, it was damp and he was going to take Mrs. Rathbone away, down to the sea.  I said it might be a good thing.  She looked as though that was what she needed.  ‘She does,’ he said, ‘I’m going to take her at once.  Today if possible; if not, tomorrow.  So we shan’t need you any more, Mrs. Richards.’  Of course I was surprised.  ‘You’ll want someone to clear up,’ I said.  ‘No, that doesn’t matter.  I’ll do what’s necessary.’  Then he tried to be civil.  ‘Thanks very much for all your help,’ he said and gave me three weeks money.  What could I do?  But they didn’t leave that day nor yet the next.  I heard it was three days later when they drove away in the evening.  There were no houses just by the Lodge in those days.  All those have been built since then.  So I don’t know who saw them go, but that’s what was said.  There was a lot of talk about it at the time.”
I seem to have heard that before, thought Carolus wearily.  But he asked:  “What kind of talk?”
“In a place like this there are always those who think the worst.  Their getting rid of the nurse and me and going off after dark like that.  Some of them went so far as to say that he’d murdered her.  But you know what people are when anything happens.  They’re always ready to talk.  I never liked Mr. Rathbone very much because I’ve always been a worker, and it didn’t seem right to me that a man should be idle; but I don’t believe he would have done his wife any harm.  As I say, he seemed very fond of her.”
“Afterwards you worked for the next occupants?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Humbell, yes.  They’re very nice.  I like sticking to the same place, and as soon as I saw their furniture going in I went and offered and started straight away.  I was with them quite recently till my daughter wanted me to stay at home.  Well, there was no need for me to go out any more.  My daughter has a good job and her husband earns wonderful money as he is a skilled carpenter.  Besides, someone’s got to give the children their dinner in the middle of the day.  So I gave it up.  But they’re very nice people, the Humbells.”
“Was the house unoccupied long?”
“Not with the shortage of houses.  No sooner was the Rathbone’s furniture out of the way…”
“They took that?”
“No, sent for it afterwards.  I’d like to have gone in and put it straight before the moving men saw it.  Clattons have the keys, I believe, the estate agents in the High Street.  The Rathbones had only been gone about a week when their furniture was sent for from London.  Mr. Humbell saw the house next day and took it at once.  You couldn’t get a place, not to rent, in those days and he thought he was lucky.  I always think it’s damp, but they have made it very nice inside now.  Quite different to what it was when the Rathbones were there.”
“So you were only away from the house for a week or ten days, then, between your notice from Rathbone and you’re starting with the Humbells?”
“It couldn’t have been any more.”
“Did you notice anything changed in the garden?”
“No.  And I had a good look round.  The Rathbones took no interest and had a jobbing gardener in once a week.  I liked to see what he’d done but, so far as I could notice, there was nothing.  It was just as I’d seen it.”
Carolus asked Mrs. Richards for Dr. Whistley’s address, thanked her for her assistance and drove to the doctor’s.  Here he explained to an elderly woman, as intelligent and polite as everyone else in the suburb, that he would like to see Dr. Whistley on a private matter.  He was shewn into a pleasant sitting room.  The doctor was elderly, but quick and shrewd.  He looked at Carolus as though impatient to size him up.  Carolus wasted no time at all but told him succinctly the reason for his visit.”
“Now that’s odd,” said Whistley.  “I always thought someone would come and ask me about the Rathbones, but I expected it at the time—not years afterwards.  It was a curious case.  I was treating Mrs. Rathbone when quite suddenly they moved away and I was never consulted by any colleague anywhere.”
“She had pernicious anæmia, I believe?”
“Yes.  Anæmia should not be considered as a disease in itself.  It is rather the symptom of some underlying disorder.  This I was trying to discover when the couple suddenly moved away.”
“What are the symptoms?”
“They’re rather technical and vary from case to case.  Mrs. Rathbone had several of the classic ones.  Her hair was greying rapidly and prematurely.  The tongue was smooth and red.  Then there was developing a disturbance of the spinal cord which we call combined system disease.  she grew very pale with a typical yellowish cast to the skin.  She had become listless, in fact was in danger of being crippled.”
“Could this be fatal?”
“Like many other diseases, not many years ago it certainly would have been.  It was not until the 1920s that the use of liver extracts was properly understood and manufactured for injection purposes.  Then, only a year or two before I treated Mrs. Rathbone, we began using vitamin B 12.  There was no reason to suppose, in Mrs. Rathbone’s case, that if she continued this treatment she might not live to an advanced age.  On the other hand, as I have explained, I do not know what caused the condition.  There may have been something which could produce a very rapid decline and possibly death.  She greatly improved with vitamin B 12 but she was still in a low nervous condition.  Almost neurasthenic, in fact.”
“Her removal need not have harmed her?”
“No.  Not necessarily.  Rathbone apparently told people that he was taking his wife to the sea, but he gave me no indication of this.  I was seeing her once a week and arrived one morning to find they had left.”
“You did not feel it necessary to report the matter?”
“To the police?  No.  Why should I have?  The sudden departure of a man with an invalid wife is not a police affair.  I am far too busy to be inquisitive about comings and goings among my patients.  I gather there was talk about this at the time, but a GP gets used to talk of that kind.”
“Yet you say that you expected inquiries afterwards?”
“Well, yes.  Perhaps from a colleague who treated her.  You see, that treatment has to be maintained.  Otherwise the anæmia would return and perhaps a crippling of the nervous system which might not be curable.  I’m afraid I’m not being very helpful when all you want is to find these people.”
“You are.  Most.  But my problem is becoming a tough one.  I started to look for a Mrs. Rathbone who was missing and now I find traces of three of them.  Unless the Mrs. Rathbone you remember could possibly have become someone described as a ‘dumpy’, ‘plump’, ‘cheerful’, ‘most sociable’, ‘affable’ woman who sang vulgar songs at the piano, drank more than was good for her, had a love affair with a commercial traveller under her husband’s nose, was rubicund with ‘a hint of purple’ in her cheeks and had legs the calves of which were ‘unbecomingly solid’.”
“Impossible, if the description is reliable.”
“Or, on the other hand, could have become ‘tall’, ‘always smiling’, ‘a bit of a gorgon’, ‘wearing glasses and old-fashioned clothes’, a ‘funny old thing’, ‘old-fashioned looking’, ‘a big woman, tall and big-made’, ‘a funny-looking old crow’, ‘always had a smile’, ‘cheery-looking’, ‘appeared to have excellent health’, ‘never without a toothy smile’.  It doesn’t fit very well, does it?”
“It doesn’t.  But it’s the same man each time?”
“Yes.  Rathbone.”
“I don’t like the sound of it.  Something like this would have emerged if anyone had started going back over the life of Brides-in-the-Bath Smith, wouldn’t it?”
“I suppose so.”
“Rathbone was a rather strange being, I remember.  But these wife murderers are supposed to be the most ordinary little men.”
“So I believe.  It’s an interesting case, but a nasty one.  You never saw Mrs. Rathbone’s sister, did you?”
“No.  I believe she came down once but I was not there.”
“Thank you very much, Doctor.”
“I should like to hear what you discover.”
“I think you will—from any newspaper.  If I’m right about this, you won’t be able to escape hearing about it.”
Before leaving for his club where he intended to stay the night, Carolus returned to the Lodge to meet Mr. Humbell, who would by now have returned from work and eaten.”
“This is the gentleman I was telling you about,” Mrs. Humbell said, “who is trying to trace the Rathbones.”
Mr. Humbell, a sturdy, grey-haired elderly man who looked as though he came from Yorkshire but spoke without dialect, invited Carolus to sit down.  “There’s not a lot I can tell you,” he said.  “They had left here before we arrived.  I moved our furniture in almost as theirs went out, as you had to in those days.  I had the place done up afterwards and it needed it.”
“Nothing was left behind, by chance?”
“Absolutely nothing.  It was moderately clean, as Mrs. Richards had been looking after them until a day or two before they left.”
“Yes.  I’ve seen Mrs. Richards.  And since then you’ve never come on anything anywhere . . .”
“No.  Would you expect it?”
“You see, Mr. Humbell, this is the third place I’ve been to from which the Rathbones moved suddenly and rather mysteriously.  One of the others was a house in a town without a garden but at the other, in a lonely part of the country, the police have investigated thoroughly.  Dug the garden and everything.”
“What did they find?”
“Nothing, I believe, but a pair of ear-rings.”
“You’re not suggesting that here then may be evidence hidden?”
“I’m past suggesting,” said Carolus.  “This affair is getting me down.  But it was only because a later tenant pulled down a wall, or something, that Christie was discovered.”
“Then why haven’t the police been here?”
“I don’t know, but I imagine the police are going forward, instead of back.  Looking for Rathbone and his wife wherever they may be.  They are probably quite right.  I go about things in my own way.  But in time they may trace the Rathbones here and wonder, as I do, whether a search would be worth while.”
“Yes.  I see.  I shall have to think it over.”
So, Carolus thought as he drove back to London, so would he.  For although he began to see the vague shape of the truth it was ghostlike and elusive.  Perhaps if he could trace that woman ‘Cara’ who had lived with Charlotte Bright (known as Lucille French) it might advance matters.  Charlotte could have told her about her visit to Bolderton during her sister’s illness, or something else that would be valuable.  He still had that address to visit—the house in which ‘Frenchy’ had died.