A Bone and a Hank of Hair
“There isn’t the smallest doubt,” said the tall woman in black, “that my cousin has been murdered.”
“And the corpse?”
“Destroyed. Obliterated. Buried. Burnt. Anyhow, beyond discovery.”
“Perhaps you know the identity of the murderer?” asked Carolus Deene innocently.
“Of course I do. It was her husband. He has completely disappeared.”
“I see. I think it would be best if you told me the whole story.”
“I’ll tell you what I know. It isn’t a lot.”
Carolus was inclined to dispute that. To know that someone missing had been murdered and by whom seemed him a great deal. He did not much like the woman in black. Apart from her downright manner there was something rather ugly in her character which he could not yet define. But he was interested.
“You see, I’ve been abroad for many years,” she continued. “Brazil. My husband is an engineer. Others in the British colony in Rio de Janeiro could afford visits to England every few years. We couldn’t. We had three children to bring up. I haven’t seen my cousin since the first months of marriage. So I can’t tell you everything that has happened. But I’m sure she’s dead.
“She was one of two daughters and her father, Herbert Bright, was devoted to her. He died fifteen years ago and left pretty well everything he had to her, but it was securely tied up. It gave her an income of about twelve hundred a year tax-free, but she could not touch the capital. On her death it would go to the children if she had any; if she left none, it would come to mine. In no case would I have any direct benefit from it. Her father, my uncle, left me nothing at all.”
Carolus had heard too much of wills and will-making to be surprised at the suggestion of the old bitterness which should come into his visitor’s manner.
“About the year before my uncle’s death she met this man Rathbone, and, before I or my husband could do anything to prevent it, he married her.”
“Why should you had wished to prevent it?”
“Why? He was after her money. A horrible, long weasel of a man. A clerk of some sort, but from the day they were married he never did another stroke of work. Just lived on the money. Now he has murdered her.”
“But Mrs. . . .”
“Chalk is my name.”
“But, Mrs. Chalk, isn’t that rather illogical? If he lived on her money and it died with her, wouldn’t he have been defeating his own ends?”
“Not at all. I have said she could not touch the capital. She could not. But there are unscrupulous finance companies who will buy someone’s life interest for a fraction of its value—a sort of inverted annuity. I have discovered that two months ago a sum was paid to her by one of these companies by which it became the possessor of her income for the rest of her life. Even if her signature had to be forged during these negotiations it would not be a difficult matter. And had round, childish handwriting which anyone could copy. My uncle’s solicitors could do nothing about it, so her husband’s way was clear. He had what money there was and did what I have always foreseen, killed her. I saw it in his face when I first met him. ‘If ever there was a wife murderer,’ I said to my husband, ‘it’s Brigham Rathbone.’ I was right.”
“I still don’t see how you can be so sure.”
“Then I’ll tell you. They lived at first in Bolderton, which was then an independent town, not one of the northern suburbs of London. A gloomy little house which had been the lodge of a great estate. I went down to see them there. I cannot tell you, Mr. Deene, what a dreadful impression I received. The house was dark. My cousin, who was a small, meagre woman and rather plain, never talked very much, but that afternoon she was positively morose. We wished to discuss family matters, but this man Rathbone would not leave us alone for a moment. I can see him now, sitting in that small stuffy room, which smelt of mildew, and taking in everything.”
“What family matters did you wish to discuss?”
“I wondered whether she had heard anything of her sister Charlotte.”
“Oh, yes. You said she was one of two daughters. And had she?”
“Nothing, except that Charlotte had been paid the sum of money which her father had left her. You see, she was ‘No Good’.”
Carolus saw only too well. in such a family ‘No Good’ means that, if not on the streets, the unfortunate sister was near it.
“It had been a most unpleasant situation for a long time. Charlotte was a year or two older than my cousin Anne, and had first startled her family by disappearing from home for some weeks when she was scarcely seventeen. She was found with a man in Southend. That was the beginning of it. Eventually my uncle forbade her the house; but he left her a thousand pounds (I think it was), which she probably spent in no time. My cousin Anne wished to have no connection with her, and, so far as I know, she never had. I doubt if Charlotte’s alive. I’m told that once a woman takes to that life she has very few years ahead of her. But I was telling you of my visit to Bolderton. I came away full of apprehension.”
“Did your cousin write to you after that?”
“Very rarely. She became seriously ill in that damp house. Rathbone wrote and told me that. He was forced to take her to healthier surroundings and they moved to Hastings, where she recovered. I’m a poor letter-writer and we lost touch. In Brazil I had no time for correspondence, and I so disliked Brigham Rathbone that I lost all interest in my cousin. It was not until I was coming home that I wrote to her again. That would be some three months ago. When I arrived, I found that they had moved again, this time to a lonely cottage near the village of Bluefield, a remote place between Canterbury and the coast. As soon as I saw the house I knew why Rathbone had chosen it.”
“It was the perfect place for a murder. It was not old; on the contrary I should say it was built shortly before the last war. It was a bungalow of red brick with a dark green paintwork. But it was the site! There was no other dwelling for half a mile and this bungalow, which was called Glose Cottage, was entirely surrounded by great dripping trees. I shuddered as soon as I saw it.”
“You had written to say you were coming?”
“Certainly. I had the address from my uncle’s solicitor. I wrote and said I should be down on the Thursday afternoon. I did not want to go, but I felt it my duty. I received no reply to my letter and set out on the most difficult journey. It took me several hours to reach Bluefield. You wouldn’t suppose such villages remained in England. It was not many miles from the home of Barham who wrote the Ingoldsby Legends, and that was what it was like. One of the more horrible of them, I mean, concerned with the supernatural. The people look like idiots, what there were of them. It was a grey, windy afternoon and the village street was almost deserted. I went to the post office and asked an elderly woman behind the counter the way to Glose Cottage. She stared at me as though I had said something extraordinary.
“ ‘Rathbones, you mean?’ she said at last.
“ ‘Yes. That’s the name.’
“At first I thought she was not going to tell me. She seems to be worried by my question. Then she said: ‘if you want to go, it’s nearly a mile away.’ I was beginning to lose patience. ‘Of course I want to go. I shouldn’t have asked if I didn’t.’ She went on staring at me. ‘Nobody has ever asked for them,’ she said. ‘Is there anything wrong?’ I demanded rather sharply. ‘Nothing that I know of. You should know all about that.’ Then she told me the way. I decided to walk. I doubted if there was a taxi, anyway. I set out on the road the woman had indicated and, except for a farm cart, I never met a soul. It was towards dusk and I found the whole district most unpleasant.
“When I saw the bungalow, I almost turned back. It stood there with trees hanging over it and had a look of abandonment and tragedy. I can put it no more clearly than that. Its red bricks and a black shadowy windows and little dark porch repelled me. However, I marched up to the front door and knocked with my umbrella. I stood there knocking and ringing for a long time.
“At last Rathbone opened the door, but only a few inches. I saw at once that he had become an old man. He must have been less than forty when he married Anne just as the war finished. She was then twenty-eight, so the most he could be in years was fifty-five; but he had a grey, unhealthy colour like some horrible fungus, and he had lost most of his hair. When I had last seen him, he dressed at least tidily, if in a rather seedy way. Now I could see a collarless shirt, buttoned with a brass stud, and his wrinkled neck, none to clean. He had worn a moustache neatly trimmed when I had seen him; now it had gone, but there was stubble on his chin. He looked at me resentfully and did not open the door any farther. I could see he recognized me, but instead of any greeting he said: ‘Annie has left me.’
“ ‘I am not surprised,’ I retorted. ‘What a place to bring her too! Where has she gone?’
“ ‘I don’t know,’ he said, and I almost thought he was going to close the door.
“ ‘Aren’t you going to ask me in?’ I asked.
“ ‘I’m packing. I’ve put it all in a sale. She’s left me.’
“I pushed right into the house and saw that what he said was true. Everything was in confusion; piles of china were on the table and all the pictures down.
“ ‘Well, this is a nice thing!’ I said. ‘I’ve come all this way to see my cousin and find she’s not here. Why couldn’t you write and tell me?’
“ ‘She’s only been gone a few days,’ he said. He did not sound particularly sorry . . . or pleased, either. just toneless.
“ ‘Still, you had time enough. I wrote to you from Brazil and then again a week ago to say I was coming down here today.’
“ ‘I thought she would return.’
“We stood there in that half-dismantled room in semi-darkness. I’ve often thought of it since. I wonder he did not murder me then, as he had his wife. There was no fire and no sign of electricity.
“ ‘Can’t we have some light?’ I asked.
“He shuffled out of the room and came back with an oil lamp which gave a poor yellow light.
“ ‘Now then,’ I said. ‘I want to know all about it.’
“ ‘There’s nothing to tell. One morning . . .’
“ ‘Which morning?’
“ ‘I think it was last Tuesday. She suddenly said at breakfast that she was going to leave me. She gave no explanation. She wouldn’t tell me where she was going. She asked if I would drive her to the station.’
“ ‘Oh. You have a car still?’
“ ‘We have always had one. What could I do?’
“ ‘Didn’t you try to dissuade her?’
“ ‘No good, with Annie. I know after living with her all these years. Once she made up her mind. I drove her down and she caught the 11.4 to London. I’ve never seen her since.’
“ ‘Or heard from her?’
“ ‘Not a word.’
“ ‘What had you quarrelled about?’
“ ‘We hadn’t quarrelled. We never quarrelled. I don’t think she liked this house.’
“ ‘She could have said so, surely?’
“ ‘She did. Often. We were going to move. Then suddenly came this.’
“ ‘I simply don’t understand it. I should’ve thought that Anne was the last person to do anything impulsive. Unless you treated her badly.’
“ ‘Never!’ he said with a show of animation. ‘I never treated her badly. I was . . . devoted to Annie.’
“I saw no reason to start an argument about that. So I questioned him about where Anne might have gone. He could tell me nothing. So far as he knew, she had received no unexpected letters lately. There was no telephone in the house. He had admitted that she could drive the car and sometimes went into Canterbury or Folkestone alone. He could not answer for what she might do there. But he had no reason to suspect anything.
“ ‘I shall inform the police,’ I said.
“ He didn’t turn hair. ‘I’ve already done so,’ he said.
“ ‘What about her sister Charlotte?’
“He shook his head. ‘She died five years ago,’ he said. ‘Annie had lost touch with her. No communication between them for the last four years of Charlotte’s life.’
“I didn’t know whether to believe him. I was aware of something quite uncanny in the atmosphere. At times I felt that someone was in the hall listening to all we said. It was a beastly house. When I came to realize what had happened, I understood. Somewhere quite near us as we talked, under the soil of the garden perhaps or cemented into the floor, were the remains of the murdered woman. But queer and nasty though I found the atmosphere, I did not suspect that then.
“I spoke to him pretty sharply. ‘I’m not leaving England for some weeks,’ I said, ‘and sha’n’t go till I’ve seen Anne.’ He looked at me like a frightened animal.
“After a while I left him. He offered rather grudgingly to drive me to the station, but I refused. I walked back. It was only when I reached the village but I realized I should have to wait nearly two hours for a train. There was another station, Tunney’s Halt only a short distance from Glose Cottage, but Rathbone haven’t mentioned it.
“I’m glad of it now, for during those two hours I heard something which makes the whole thing twenty times more mysterious. I asked if there was anywhere I could get a cup of tea and they shewed me a cottage. A nice, youngish woman served me and was far more inclined to talk than the postmistress had been.
“ ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I know the Rathbones by sight. I don’t think anyone knows that much to speak to. They never come into the village if they can help it. Well, sometimes he pops in the car to do a bit of shopping, but I’ve never seen her buy anything here. She always drove away somewhere—Canterbury, I dare say. I’ve seen her going off many times, but never stopping. They both kept themselves to themselves, but her more than him, from what I could tell. Fred the postman said the same. If he came to the door, he would just say good morning; she was ghastly to even that. I went out there last Poppy Day to collect, and she opened the door and stood looking down on me . . .’ ”
“I thought she was a little woman?” interrupted Carolus.
“That’s what I’m coming to, said Mrs. Chalk. She was a little woman when I went away. This person from the tea shop said she was tall. I asked her particularly. ‘Quite tall,’ she said. Now, Mr. Deene, a woman doesn’t suddenly start growing; so I thought in a flash what had happened. The woman he was calling his wife in that village was not my poor cousin at all. When you come to go into it all, I shouldn’t be surprised if you find there have been others. Look at that case years ago of the man who drowned I don’t know how many wives in the bath. Look at Christie. You take my word for it, this one is as bad as any of them. If you had seen his face when I asked where Anne was!”
“I must say that inconsistency about tallness is rather interesting. Did you get any confirmation of it?”
“Not really. And, as I’ll tell you, there’s contradiction to it, too. But this woman was sure. Taller than her husband, she said. However, to go on with my story. I got my train back at last and was thankful to leave that village behind. When I reached London, I decided to go and see my uncle’s solicitors and tell them.
“Mr. Mumford, the senior partner who had known my uncle, Herbert Bright, was dead. I saw his son, who was somewhat perturbed when I told him that Anne was supposed to have left a husband, but he would not listen to what had been told me about Rathbone’s wife being tall. ‘People get very confused about these things,’ he said. ‘I often imagine I have been talking to a tall woman and find later that she is of normal height. It’s the shoes they wear and whether they are seen with shorter men. At all events your cousin was with him in this office week or two ago.’ Then, because I was an interested member of the family, he told me the facts about my cousins income. She had come with Rathbone to arrange the matter. He had done everything in his power to just wait them from the step they contemplated, but they would not listen to him. Still, it meant that my cousin was alive some weeks ago. Rathbone must have murdered her after securing the money. Perhaps her body was still in the house with I was there. It’s not pleasant to think of it, is it?”
“You say that Rathbone has disappeared?”
“He went the day after my call. Left everything as it was. Did not wait for the auctioneer to fetch his stuff for the sale room. Just went. His car was found abandoned in London. I have seen the police, but they don’t seem to take it very seriously. On the face of it, I suppose it’s just another couple disappearing. I’m told that it’s quite frequent, but I know it’s nothing of the sort. If you could have seen that house and the man as I did! ‘There’s only one thing for it,’ I said to the C.I.D. inspector. ‘Dig!’ I said. ‘Dig, my dear man. You’ll find her. No doubt of it.’ But he said something about tracing them. Tracing! How can you trace a dead woman, I should like to know?”
“It’s not impossible,” said Carolus.