A Bone and a Hank of Hair
He decided next day to make straight for Montgolfier Street and hope to find someone who remembered Charlotte Bright. He realized that the chances were against him, for the population in such an apartment house would be a shifting one and it was five years since Charlotte’s death; but this was the sort of challenge which he enjoyed.
It took him three days to pick up the lightest thread. During that time he inquired of a great variety of people, from Makroides himself to the barman of a pub in Charlotte Street, from ladies with busy telephones to a girl in a lung hospital. He met a good deal of hostility, some ridicule and some unselfish kindness, and he covered considerable distance on foot and by car, largely in regions between Soho and St. Pancras. Five years ago seemed to be pre-history to most of those asked and the apartment house in Montgolfier Street had long since become respectable. The less pleasant part of his search was in arty little clubs, and it was in one of these that he was told off-handedly—“You ought to ask Old Maree. She lived in that house for donkey’s years.”
More hours of search brought him to ‘Old Maree’ herself and that would have rewarded him even if she could have told him nothing. For ‘Old Maree’ was remarkable.
First, though her hair blazed with a lurid copper colour, she was old. But not old enough, as she said, to have ‘crumpled’. She sat proudly upright on a straight chair in the little bar she had suggested and said—“Old? I can’t afford to be. Though it’s surprising how often the young ones get passed over. It’s not years or even lines in your face. It’s how you stand up. Once you begin to Go you’ve had it. I remember seeing No, No Nanette, so you can see I wasn’t born yesterday. But I don’t complain.
“I tried to settle down once. I’d always had a fancy for chickens. That’ll seem funny to you but, if there’s one thing I like, it’s a nice fresh egg. So I took this place in the country with another girl. I stuck it six months, then I was back. It’s what you get used to. Thanks. I’ll just have plain gin.
“So you want to know about poor Frenchy. Well, I can tell you because I had the room next but one to hers in Montgolfier Street. That’s all been done away with now. The Law got onto it and that Makroides they used to call Daddy did six months. But it was handy then. Right in the centre and no one to interfere with you. Frenchy came to live there after the girl she’d been with went off with a fellow to the country. A girl called Cara. She’s still about, because I saw her the other day. Only she doesn’t get round the West End any more. She’s living steady with a fellow called Myberg. She was a character, was Cara. Anything for a laugh. She told me the other day: ‘I’m Mrs. Myberg now. What do you think of that?’ Got a place Bayswater way and nicely settled down, she says. I was pleased to see her and we had quite a chat. I asked her if she’d heard about Frenchy and she said: ‘Yes, I heard the poor cow was dead.’ That’s the way she talked, even about anyone Gone. But she didn’t mean anything. It was just her way.
“I’d left Montgolfier Street before Frenchy died there, but I heard about it. Nobody seemed to know what the cause of it was. It was quite sudden, though she was never what you might call strong. A long string of a girl, she was, with big dark eyes. You couldn’t help noticing her. Long neck and a sort of prancing walk. When she used to live with Cara, they got on well together, because they were so different. But Cara went away suddenly with this fellow. Said she was only going to be away for the day, and never came back. Frenchy thought she must have been seeing him for some time on the sly. She never said anything to Frenchy. So Frenchy, who knew me, met me one evening and said Cara had gone off, so did I know of a room she could afford on her own, and I told her about Montgolfier Street. She came round and moved in, and after that I saw quite a lot of her. Only after a time I couldn’t afford that place. Makroides used to charge something wicked for the rooms. They all do, but his was the worst of the lot and I moved out. It can’t have been more than a month later when poor Frenchy was found dead.”
“Yes, well that’s what happens. No one’s going to disturb you and it may be a day or two before anyone begins to wonder. When they found her, they said she’d been dead the best part of two days. Yes, I don’t mind. Just plain gin. I hope I’m not doing all this talking for nothing?”
“No,” said Carolus. You’re on to a fiver.”
“I should think so. There’s no one else could tell you all this. Where was I? Oh, yes, there she was, dead for two days. So they had to find out who she was, didn’t they? Lucille French she called herself, but that didn’t mean much. So they started going through her things and all they found to identify her was a letter from some lawyer about ten years ago saying her old man had died and left her a thousand nicker. Only that was before I’d known her. I forget her real name. Charlotte something.”
“Bright,” said Carolus.
“I don’t remember that. But I know it was Charlotte because that’s a French name, isn’t it, and I remember thinking to myself, that’s why she took the name French. Oh, well, she’s Gone now. Here’s cheers.” ‘Old Maree’ adjusted herself in the chair she overlapped and squared her shoulders. “One of the girls in the house told me about it, though I don’t know how she knew all the details. Must have been friendly with the cops. It seems they got in touch with these lawyers who’d written the letter, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with it, and put them on to her sister who was married and lived down at Brighton or somewhere.”
“It may have been. You seem to know more about it than I do. If you know everything, I’d like to know why you’re asking me.”
“No. I don’t. Please go on.”
“There’s not much more to tell. They’d taken poor Frenchy to the mortuary by then and the sister went there to identify her. After that she was cremated. I shouldn’t like that. Would you? Shrivelled up to a couple of cinders. Oh, well. We can’t live for ever, that’s quite sure. Well, just one more, but I must run along. Plain gin.”
“So that’s all you can tell me about Frenchy?”
“Isn’t it enough? She’s Gone, so I don’t know what more’s to be said. If you want to hear more, you better see Cara. Only don’t forget she’s Mrs. Myberg now. She won’t want a lot of this brought up again, you can be sure of that. But, if you can get her on her own, she might tell you something. What’s it all about?”
“It’s not really about Charlotte Bright herself. I’m trying to trace her sister, who has disappeared.”
“Oh, that’s it! And you think that poor Frenchy might have said something to Cara which would help?”
“Yes. Charlotte, I mean Frenchy, went down to see her sister when she was very ill.”
“When was that?”
“About six years ago.”
“Cara was living with her then for certain. They were together for years before Frenchy came to Montgolfier Street and that must be nearly that. I can’t remember the time, not to the year. But you can be sure Cara knew her then. What’s the Law doing about it, anyway?”
“I don’t really know. I was asked by a relative if I could trace this woman.”
“Oh, well. It’s a funny life.”
“I suppose you haven’t got Mrs. Myberg’s telephone number?”
“No, I haven’t. But I should think you’d find it in the telephone book. The way she was dressed and that. I believe this chap she’s with is in quite a big way of business.”
“Well, it looked like it, and Cara wasn’t a girl to settle down for nothing, if you know what I mean. Funny how they come and go, isn’t it? There’s not many of those around today I can say I know. Not to say know. Of course they all know me. There was a journalist chap talking to me the other evening, the cheeky bastard, and he says: ‘We all know you, Maree. You’re a bit of old London,’ he says, ‘like the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.’ ‘Who’s she?’ I asked. ‘I bet she hasn’t been around longer than I have. And what a pitch! What’s she expect to do up there in the evening?’ But he only laughed. Well, I’m not ashamed of it. And I keep wonderfully well. That’s the gin. Yes, I will have one for the road.”
Carolus brought it from the bar.
“As I was saying, it’s gin keeps me so well. I always drink it like that, not messed up with water or vermouth or anything. Have done for years. It’s the best thing for anything like indigestion. Then I give myself a good eight hours sleep, never mind what time I get to bed. That’s another secret. I tell them, I say I shall be still going when you poor cows are pushing up daisies. Here’s cheers.”
Carolus raised his glass, no longer expecting to hear anything highly pertinent but fascinated by ‘Old Maree’.
“That Cara liked a drink. I’ve seen her well away. I don’t know how she gets on now she’s right out there in Bayswater. I suppose she finds somewhere to go. But it seems this Myberg is very jealous. I dare say he knows what she was, as you might say, and keeps a good eye on her. That’s a change for her. So did Frenchy like a drink—Or Charlotte, as you call her. You say she had a sister. I suppose I wouldn’t have known her, would I?”
“I don’t think so. She was apparently a rather mousy little person who lived with her father and was married within a year of his death.”
“Perhaps that’s why I never heard Frenchy speak of her. Here! You see that girl just come in on her own? Her with the violets, I mean; she always wears violets. I don’t know how she can afford it. Well, she knew Frenchy. She stayed on at Montgolfier Street after I did. She was there when Frenchy went. Would you like me to bring her over? Only I don’t suppose she’ll want to waste a lot of time.”
“Please,” said Carolus.
The ‘girl’, whose name it appeared was Elizabeth, had a voice that might have been trained in one of those rooms with French windows and sunlight that are found only as the settings for West End comedies. She had an air of great sophistication or, as ‘Old Maree’ said later, she had class. When Carolus asked her what she would like to drink she said: “I suppose Maree is lapping up her old neat gin. I’ll have a B and S.”
It was from his reading of Lytton Strachey’s essay on General Gordon that Carolus had learned the interpretation of this and brought over a brandy and soda.
“Oh, yes, I remember the woman you’re discussing,” said Elizabeth. “Quite a pleasant type. Murdered, probably.”
“How can you talk like that?” said ‘Old Maree’. “You’ll give me the creeps for a week. How could she have been murdered?”
“I only said ‘probably’,” pointed out Elizabeth. “The usual doctor gave the usual death certificate. Of course, she may have committed suicide.”
“Whyever would she have done that?” asked ‘Old Maree’ in horror. “She was doing all right, wasn’t she? I can’t see what would have made her think of such a thing!”
“Boredom, perhaps,” said Elisabeth. “But murder was a possibility, too. I didn’t like the look of a character she was seeing a lot of at the end. Used to come up from the country somewhere to meet her. I am country-bred myself. Father was MFH of the Pychesmore, as a matter of fact. This character did not look like a countryman to me.”
“What did he look like?”
“Grey-haired, narrow face, weak expression. I should think he probably put weed-killer in her chocolates or something. She went out like a light. Up and about one week and faded altogether the next. Then they broke her door in and found her. The usual story.”
“It’s not the usual story!” said ‘Old Maree’ indignantly. “Else I shouldn’t be able to sleep at night for thinking of it. The way you talk, Elizabeth, is enough to turn anyone TT. You ought to be ashamed to talk like that.”
Elizabeth suppressed a yawn. “I only say what everyone else did at the time.”
Once again, thought Carolus.
“Well, you shouldn’t say it. I need something to pull me together after that. Yes, plain gin, please, and Elizabeth will have another brandy.”
“I wasn’t really sufficiently interested in the woman,” went on Elizabeth in her bored voice. “She was terribly ordinary, really. Rather unusual in appearance, but there it stopped.”
“She made me think of a giraffe. Not only the long neck but those large eyes, startled and longing, if you can see what I mean. She was put into cold storage till they could find her sister.”
“Elizabeth!” said ‘old Maree’ rather hysterically. “I won’t have it! What a way to speak! You give me the shudders. She means the mortuary,” ‘Old Maree’ added to Carolus.
“Yes,” went on Elizabeth. “They raked up a married sister from somewhere who identified her and she was cremated. I ought to have gone to the cremation really, but I overslept.”
‘Old Maree’ was calm again now and turned suitably philosophical. “Ah well,” she said, “we all have to Go some time.”
“Personally, I couldn’t care less,” said Elizabeth.
“Don’t be so wicked. Of course you do. You’ve only got one life to live, you know. You’re going to be a long time dead. So why not enjoy life while you can?”
“Enjoy it?” said Elizabeth contemptuously.
“Well, I do,” said ‘Old Maree’, “I know that. Always have done.”
“You must be even more unintelligent than I thought.”
“Who are you calling unintelligent?” asked ‘Old Maree’, rhetorically. “At least I know what I want and how to get it which is more than some, however much they talk like someone on the BBC.”
Carolus knew the high emotional pitch at which they lived and recognized this is a critical moment. Even Elizabeth with her blasé refinement was never far from hysteria. One sharp report from her and there would be tears and violence. On the other hand a feaher’s weight would tip the whole crisis to laughter.
“I wish I did,” he said. “I can’t think what I want and if I could I shouldn’t have a notion of how to get it. Except very simple things—like another drink. What about it?”
“This must be the last,” said ‘Old Maree’. “Plain gin and a nice brandy for Elizabeth.”
An olive branch, perceived Carolus, and left them without misgivings while he went to the bar. All was well when he returned.
“Is there anything else you want to know about Frenchy?” asked Elizabeth. “Because I really must run after this.”
“There was no real reason for thinking she was murdered, was there?” asked Carolus seriously.
“I suppose not, really. It was just what was said and that means very little.”
“Or that she committed suicide?”
“That could be. I wouldn’t like to give an answer on that. I didn’t really know her well enough. And that’s a dam’ silly thing to say, too, because who the hell knows anyone well enough to anticipate their suicide?”
“I suppose not.”
“Though I don’t believe the old gag about people who threaten to do it not doing it. I’ve known too many who have threatened four years and then have done it.”
“You never heard Frenchy threaten it?”
“I didn’t. I didn’t really know her.”
“Cara could tell you that,” put in ‘Old Maree’. “If anyone had heard her it would have been Cara. You find her and you’ll learn all you want.”
“That may not be so easy. You don’t remember her husband’s first name, do you?”
“Morry, she called him.”
“Morrice, then, or Morris, I suppose. I’ll look it up later. I thank you both very much.”
“Yes, but what about . . .” began ‘Old Maree’ without budging.
Carolus, who had prepared for this while up at the bar, gave her his hand with the necessary Treasury Notes. She nodded, then said, “I dare say Elizabeth would . . .”
Carolus gave a laden hand to Elizabeth.
“I must be on my way,” said ‘Old Maree’. “This won’t buy the baby a new frock.” Not, perhaps, the happiest of phrases in the circumstances, thought Carolus. “I hope you find whoever it is you’re looking for, and if you want to see me again I’m usually in here about nine.”
Elizabeth nodded coolly and walked away.