A Bone and a Hank of Hair, Chapter Six

A Bone and a Hank of Hair

CHAPTER SIX

In those days at a Bluefield Carolus heard recollections of the Rathbones from a number of people and, although not many of these were new, here and there was a fact or a detail which had significance.
The Rector, a splendid chap with a large pipe, had been up at Oxford with Carolus, though they had not met.  Mr. Lygnett had rowed in the University boat and was altogether a very virile and rather loud-voiced man.  “’Fraid I’m a bit intolerant,” he explained to Carolus.  “I had better say right out that I couldn’t stand the fellow.  Slinky, effeminate cad . . .”
“Effeminate?” asked Carolus.  The word signified for him something he had not associated with Rathbone.
“Yes.  I don’t mean one of these dressed-up, minxing little rats you see in the West End of London.  Make me sick.  But there was a sort of softness or weakness in that fellow Rathbone’s face which was nearly as bad.”
Carolus nodded, seeing what the Rector meant.
“And grubby.  Don’t believe he took a bath more than once a week.  Filthy teeth . . .”
“Really?”
“Nobody need go about with gaps in the teeth today.  National Health has stopped that.  Must have been just laziness.  Revolting character.  Sorry if I seem unchristian.”
“What about Mrs. Rathbone?”
“Poor woman!  I don’t think he let her out very often.  She used to come to church on Sundays.  Always crept in late and was gone before we had finished the last hymn.  Sat at the back.”
“Did you talk to her at all?”
“Never had a chance.  I went out to call, but that slimy brute was most offensive.  Wouldn’t have his wife run after by priests, he said.  I’d have knocked him down if he hadn’t been such a weed.”
“They never came to any village functions?”
“Gracious me, no!  We scarcely ever saw them.  I don’t know whether the Doc was called out there.  You could see him, if you like.  Lives at that white house almost next door to the Stag.”
Carolus went to see Dr. Chatto, but with no more satisfactory result.  The doctor was a dressy little man with birdlike perkiness, but plenty of intelligence, Carolus thought.
“No, I was never called to the house,” he said.  “Mrs. Rathbone appeared to have excellent health.  The man came to the surgery once—some stomach disorder.  I told him to have his teeth attended to, eat less tinned food and get some good fresh milk.  He admitted that they used tinned milk only.”
“Perhaps they didn’t want tradesmen calling.”
“Very likely.  Rathbone never came back to me.”
“Did you notice anything about him physically which might help me to piece together this affair?”
“Let me think.  Yes, his hands.  Extraordinary thing.  The man neglected his teeth and looked generally pretty seedy, but he had small, well-kept hands which look as though they were powerful, too.  There was something rather clawlike about them.”
Carolus nodded.  He always appreciated observation in others.
“Pity you never had to examine Mrs. Rathbone,” he said.  “I might have something to go on then.”
“I saw her once or twice.  She was a tall, heavy woman.  She wore ear-rings and had a nervous trick of smiling.”
“Oh.  It was a nervous trick?”
“It must have been.  One never saw her without that toothy smile.”
Carolus thanked Dr. Chatto and went to see the only tradesmen known to have called at Glose Cottage, a coal merchant called Toffins.  This was a cheery little man who worked from the goods yard of Bluefield Station with an ancient lorry.  He was assisted by a herculean son.
“Yes,” he said, “I knew Rathbone and his wife.  Had all their coal from me ever since they came here.  It would have made you laugh.”
“Why?” asked Carolus, who had not yet got into Mr. Toffins’ idiom.
“To have seen one or the other, I mean.  Him looking like a funeral butt having a word with you now and again, and her cheerful as could be but never saying more than ‘good morning’ as she handed over the key of the coal shed.  I could have died laughing.”
“Did they use much coal?”
“From all accounts it was all they did use much of.  I was the only one round here that supplied them with anything.  Used to make me smile to think Wallbright and them never got a ha’penny of custom out of them and I supplied them regular.  They kept fires on all the time.  Must have been the damp.  But that always was a cold house.”
“Did they have much coal lately?”
“That’s what I was just going to tell you.  About a month ago, it was, Rathbone came running into my yard as though he’d seen a ghost.  You’d have bust yourself laughing.  ‘Mr. Toffins,’ he said, ‘I’m nearly out of coal.  I’d no idea we was so low.’  ‘All right, all right,’ I said to him.  ‘You can have some tomorrow.  How much do you want?’  He seemed to calm down a bit then, and thought he’d like a ton.  ‘You shall have it tomorrow,’ I told him, And he went off.  But you should have seen his face.  Laugh?  I thought I should never stop.”
“Very amusing,” said Carolus politely.  “How did he pay for his supplies?”
“By cheque.  Always by cheque to Bearer.  On his bank at Folkestone.  The Westlay’s and Metropolitan.”
“Do you remember how the cheques were signed?”
“Yes.  By both of them.  Her name was on top.  ‘Anne Rathbone’, then his ‘Brigham Rathbone’.  I remember because Mr. Smith the cashier remarked on it.  ‘Brigham’, he said, ‘that’s an unusual name.  Same as the founder of the Mormons.’  ‘Perhaps he is a Mormon,’ I said, and you ought to have heard us.  I thought I should die laughing.”
“You should meet Mrs. Gorringer,” murmured Carolus.
“Eh?”
“I was going to ask you whether you ever saw anyone else out at Glose Cottage?”
“Never, in all the times I’ve been out there.”
“What about their dustbin?  How did they manage for that?”
“Oh, the lorry only comes round once a month out here.  I don’t know what we pay rates for, really.  But old George Body, who collected from them, said they didn’t have much.  Used to bury it, he said.  He never had a lot to do with them.  Well, he’d tell you the same as what I have.”
“Where is the local refuse dumped?”
Down a disused mine shaft out at Grayfield.  Very handy for this district.  Oh, yes, I’ve often smiled over the Rathbones.  Queer old pair.  I said to my son:  ‘It’s a good thing they’re not all like Rathbones, otherwise I shouldn’t be able to do my rounds for laughing’.”
“Quite.  You must have a merry life, Mr. Toffins.”
“Well, there’s no sense in going about like a funeral, is there?  I like a good laugh.”
“I dare say you had one when you heard the Rathbones had left.”
“It is rather funny, isn’t it?  Popping off like that.  After all the time they have been here.  There you are, you never know, do you?”
“You don’t,” agreed Carolus, and left Mr. Toffins to his merriment.
His next and his most important call took him to London, to the offices of Messrs Mumble, Gray & Mumford in Booty Street, Bloomsbury.  Carolus realised that he would be on difficult ground here, for solicitors are rightly chary about giving information of any kind, and in a case like this would be doubly so.  However, he could only try, and it might be that Mr. Mumford would be more communicative than most of his profession.
He found Booty Street a wide but somewhat grey and forbidding thoroughfare near the Gray’s Inn Road, and the firm’s offices on the first floor of a grim old house.  An ancient clerk looked up myopically and Carolus asked for Mr. Mumford.
“Have you got an appointment?” said the old man in a voice unexpectedly quick and snappy as he blinked at Carolus.
“No.  You might say that I come from Mrs. Chalk.”
“Mr. Mumford is engaged at the moment.  I’ll find out if he can see you.”
It was half an hour before Carolus was shewn in to meet a solidly-built, grey-haired man with thin lips and a mechanical smile which was switched on and off apparently at fixed intervals.
Carolus explained his business.
“I am afraid I couldn’t go into that,” said Mr. Mumford.  His smile came on and off like an electric sign
“I want no breach of confidence, of course,” Carolus explained, “but there are one or two things which I think you could tell me quite properly.  For instance, is it a fact that Mrs. Rathbone was in this office some weeks ago?”
Mr. Mumford considered, then said briefly, “It is a fact.”
“I think I ought to explain that there is the gravest doubt as to whether the woman who has been living with Rathbone at Bluefield was his wife at all.”
Mr. Mumford smiled, but it may have been only the periodic lip-stretch.
“Mrs. Chalk said something of that kind.  It seemed preposterous to me.”
“The woman at Bluefield was tall.”
“Mr. Deene, if you had listened to evidence in court as often as I have, you would not take much notice of witnesses’ evidence of heights.  Mrs. Rathbone was short.  I understand from Mrs. Chalk that she was rarely seen in Bloomfield except in her car.  That accounts for the discrepancy.”
“Not altogether.  Did you know Mrs. Rathbone?”
“I met her some weeks ago.”
“You did not know her at the time she married Rathbone?”
“No, but my father met her at least once when he was dealing with Mr. Bright’s will.  And Potter knew her.”
“You’ll pardon me, but if that is the gentleman I met in the outer office, do you think his eyesight is to be relied on?”
Smile on.  “Yes.”  Smile off.  “I most certainly do.  Very shrewd, old Potter.  He recognised even her voice.  No doubt about it at all.  Besides she has been signing her receipts until . . . recently.”
“Had she an almost fixed smile?”
“Certainly not.  There was nothing eccentric about Mrs. Rathbone.”
“Except her disposal of an adequate income for life for a lump sum.
“If there was anything of the sort,” said Mr. Mumford, “I should not be prepared to discuss it.”
“I quite understand.  But you could, I think, give me the address in Hastings at which Mr. and Mrs. Rathbone lived for some years.”
“I hardly think . . .”
“Look, Mr. Mumford, this woman, or at any rate a woman has disappeared.  Possibly two women.  I have been asked by Mrs. Chalk, a member of the family . . .”
“By marriage, Mr. Deene.  Only by marriage.  We must remember that.”
“An interested party at all events.  I have been asked by Mrs. Chalk to trace her cousin.  Surely a three-year-old address, if it is going to aid me, is a small piece of information to ask?”
The inevitable answer came:  “It’s the principle of the thing.  However, on consideration, I see no reason to deny it you.  It was 47, Balaclava Grove.”
“Thank you.  And the address in Bolderton—though I can get that from Mrs. Chalk.”
“It was Coleshill Lodge, Bolderton.  Now is there anything else, because I have a client waiting for me?”
“Yes.  Do you know anything of the antecedents of Rathbone?  After all, he isn’t a client of yours.”
“I can give you the name of the firm he worked for before he married a client’s daughter.  I see no harm in that.”
“That is fifteen years ago?”
“Approximately.  Yes.”
Mumford rang and asked his clerk for the necessary information.
“And now, he said, let me ask you a question.  Do you see any prospect of tracing the Rathbones whom you insist on describing as ‘missing’?”
“I have spoken to Rathbone.”
“You have?”  Smile on.  “What is his explanation?”  Smile off.
“I scarcely think . . . I am acting in a professional capacity . . .”
“Quite, quite,” said Mr. Mumford, hoist with his own petard.  “You don’t think there could be anything er . . . questionable about Mrs. Rathbone’s . . . er . . . whereabouts?”
“You mean, has she been murdered?”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Deene.  Don’t let us be melodramatic.  People are not murdered.”
“No?  Perhaps you’re right.”
“I have never heard anything about the daughter of our client Herbert Bright or about her husband to suggest any impropriety.”
“You should go down to the village where they lived.  You would hear enough there.”
“Gossip?  Scandal?”
“No one in the place doubts that Rathbone killed his wife and buried her in the garden or somewhere.”
“And you?”
“I don’t think she is buried in the garden.”
“This is all very disturbing.  This firm has never been connected with anything of the sort.”
Potter entered and handed Mumford a slip of paper.
“This is the firm for which Rathbone worked before his marriage,” he said, and passed the paper to Carolus, who read Tonkins Sons & Company, Wholesale Chemists, 17, Skye Street, Hammersmith.
“They are still there,” said Potter quietly.
“Thank you.  That is most helpful.”
“I trust you will keep us informed,” said Mumford.  Smile on.  “We have a natural interest in the matter.”  Smile off. 
“Another question,” said Carolus unhurriedly, but before Potter could leave the room.  “Did the Rathbones come to this office during the time they lived at Hastings?”
“My father was alive then and I had no concern with this.  Did they, Potter?”
“Several times, Mr. Mumford.”
“And what was Mrs. Rathbone’s height then?” asked Carolus.
Potter looked pained.
“Just as it always was, of course.  She was a short lady.  She was ill when they moved to Hastings, I believe, but soon recovered there.  She came up a couple of years after the move.  She looked very well, I thought.”
“The sea air,” reflected Carolus.
“Yes,” went on Potter.  “We remarked on it at the time.  She seemed to have quite blossomed out.  I remember the late Mr. Mumble saying that he ought to move to Hastings.  It’s a pity he didn’t.  He might have been alive to this day.”
“Come, Potter.  Mr. Mumble was eighty-one when I joined the firm.”
“He might have lived much longer than he did,” corrected Potter.  “Mrs. Rathbone was a delicate lady till she went to Hastings.”
“She had a sister, I believe,” Carolus threw out, not daring to ask a flat question.
“Dead,” said Mr. Mumford.  Smile on.  “Tragic case.”  Smile off.  “We were involved.  I have often thought it hastened my father’s end.”
“What were the details?”
“Most unsavoury.  She was a woman of . . . er . . . easy morals . . .”
“A woman of the town,” put in Potter more explicitly.
“I fear, yes.  A . . . er . . . fille de joie . . .”
“You mean she was a whore?” said Carolus impatiently.
“In biblical terms, yes.  That would be no exaggeration.  She was found dead in a miserable room not half a mile from where we are sitting.  In an . . . apartment house kept by a Maltese or Cypriot.  I never knew which.  The only evidence of her identity was a letter from us, advising her some years previously that her father had left her—generously, in view of the circumstances—one thousand pounds.”
“So one of you went down?”
“No.  No.  Quite out of our sphere.  We gave the police the address of her sister at Hastings and Mrs. Rathbone identified the body.”
“When, exactly, was this?”
Mumford glanced at Potter.
“Five years ago, almost to a day,” said Potter.  “Mrs. Rathbone called here afterwards and it was the last time we saw her until she came in the other day in the matter of . . .”
“That will do, thank you, Potter.  I have already explained to Mr. Deene that if Mrs. Rathbone did make any new financial arrangements we could not in any case discuss them.”
“So the sister died five years ago.  Could you give me the address of this apartment house in which she was found?”
“I see no reason against it.  Potter?”
“I’ll turn it up, Mr. Mumford.  We found that the name under which she had been work . . . living was Lucille French.  She was apparently known among her associates as ‘Frenchy’.  Women of that calling rarely use their own names.”
“You are very well informed.”
Potter left the room and came back with the address.
“Here you are.  16b, Montgolfier Street, Flat 27.  The proprietor was known as ‘Daddy’.  He lived in Grosvenor Square.  That is the address.  His name is Makroides.”
“You’re most kind.”
“I cannot see what the circumstances of her unfortunate sisters death have to do with the . . . er . . . absence of Mrs. Rathbone, observed Mumford.
“Nor, quite frankly, can I,” said Carolus cheerfully; “but it’s all grist to the mill.  Did Rathbone come up from Hastings with his wife when she had to identify her sister?”
“Certainly.  He was reputed to be a most affectionate husband.”
“One final question.  I take it there was nothing in the circumstances of Charlotte’s death to give rise to question?”
Mr. Mumford shrugged.  “A doctor gave a death certificate,” he said; “but with women of that kind I dare say no very searching examination is made or needed.  Mrs. Rathbone paid for the cremation.  You seem to be landing yourself in deep waters, if I may say so, Mr. Deene.”
“Deeper and deeper,” said Carolus.
“What surprises me, if you sincerely intended to find the Rathbones, is that you do not appear to look for them.  Instead of going forward you go back into the past.”
“Sorry if I sound enigmatic or something,” said Carolus; “but in this case the only way to go forward is to go back.”
Then, after a final expression of thanks, he left the gloomy purlieus of Booty Street.