A Bone and a Hank of Hair
Carolus set out next day for the town of Grimsgate between Folkestone and Dover, since it was here that Mr. Drubbing had his offices. He was a dingy little man who crouched behind a large desk. There was something dry, even dusty, about his skin and colourless hair, something vague in his fish-grey eyes. Carolus explained his identity and calling.
“I see,” whispered Mr. Drubbing furtively, as though Carolus had come to tell him a shameful secret.
“I want to know about a bungalow at Bluefield called Glose Cottage.”
Mr. Drubbing did not actually say ‘hush’, but he looked as though he would like to. His eyes went to the door which was closed.
“What about it?”
“I understand you are going to hold an auction of the effects.”
“No. Between you and me that’s been cancelled.”
Carolus wondered why this information should be between him and Mr. Drubbing, but he only asked: “How was that?”
“It’s a curious business,” said the auctioneer. “I let that cottage to a man called Rathbone.”
“How long ago?”
“Between ourselves, it was about three years ago. In 1956. I never liked the place. It was built before the war by a man who wanted to start chicken-farming. He was a sick man when he built it and died there soon after. Even since the war, when every available place has been taken, I haven’t been able to sell it. It stood empty for years. Keep it to yourself, but it’s in a bad position. Stands quite alone. Then this man Rathbone appeared and rented it. Remained there three years.”
“Don’t let this go any farther, but one afternoon about six weeks ago he hurried in here and said he had decided to move. Wanted all his stuff put up to auction. You mustn’t repeat this, but I can see there was something wrong. The man was nervous. Frightened, I thought at the time. I didn’t like it. I tried to put him off. Said it would be weeks before I could arrange an auction. ‘My wife’s not well and I want to move,’ he said.”
“Did you know Mrs. Rathbone?”
“No. I knew he was married. I’ve seen her driving their car. But I’ve never met her. Keep this under your hat, but I wasn’t altogether sorry. In spite of the fact that she seemed always smiling, she looked a bit of a gorgon. Glasses. Old-fashioned clothes.”
“Couldn’t say. I’ve only seen her in the car. Anyway, when I told Rathbone it would be some time before I could arrange an auction, he hung about for a bit. Didn’t seem able to make up is mind. You mustn’t breathe a word of this, but there was something very strange about him. The rent was paid regularly every quarter by check, but I always felt it was a mystery there. He seemed to do nothing at all.”
“Must have had. But that’s not so usual in these days, is it? And why should they want to live in that gloomy little house miles from anywhere?”
“It’s certainly curious.”
“Then, just a month ago—I can give you the exact date—he came in here looking as though he seen a ghost.”
“Perhaps he had.”
Mr. Drubbing paused and seemed to consider this.
“He certainly looked like it. ‘I shan’t be able to wait for that auction,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving at once. Here are the keys.’ He handed me one set, though I knew perfectly well there was two. I tried to explain that all this was most irregular, but he seemed quite distraught. I know you won’t let it go any farther, but I was worried. I wondered whether I ought to do anything about it. A doctor, police . . . ‘What about your furniture?’ I said. ‘Sell it . . . No, leave it,’ he told me. Just to say something while he calmed down, I said I might be able to let the place furnished. He nodded. He hasn’t been seen in the district since then.”
“What about his wife?”
“She had disappeared some days before. I gather he told people in Bluefield that she had left him.”
“And have you let it furnished?”
A twitch that tried to be a smile was on Mr. Drubbing’s grey features. “Let it furnished? You can’t possibly have seen the place. Or the furniture. It has something quite deathly about it.”
“I’m thinking of taking it,” said Carolus.
“I strongly advise you to think again. Between you and me and the gatepost, it has got a bad name. Perhaps because the man who built it was alone when he died there. Then the disappearance of Mrs. Rathbone. How can you account for that? I shouldn’t like to stay a night in the place myself.”
“It interests me,” said Carolus.
“Rather you than me. Of course I can let it to you. In absolute secrecy I must tell you that it still belongs to the family of the man who built it. They’ve long since given up hope of selling it and are glad to get any price. Then there’s Rathbone’s furniture.”
“Yes. Rathbone’s furniture. And effects,” said Carolus thoughtfully.
“Say five pounds a week?”
“That will do.”
“Hadn’t you better see it first?”
“I think not.”
“You wouldn’t take it if you did. But that’s your affair.”
Carolus made out a check for ten pounds. “I shan’t want it for very long,” he said.
“Strictly in confidence, I’m sure you want. Here are the keys. There’s no electric light. Main water, yes. Cesspool drainage.”
“Thank you. I’ll run out there now.”
Mr. Drubbing leant across his desk. “You’re investigating?” he breathed.
“You can call it that.”
“The woman’s disappearance?”
“And the man’s.”
“You realise what is being said in the village?”
“I can guess.”
“Rathbone was not a pleasant character.”
Carolus considered this. Two people, Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Drubbing, neither of whom he liked, had reiterated their distaste for Rathbone. A ‘long weasel of a man’ one had said; ‘nervous’, ‘frightened’, ‘something wrong’ had observed the other. Mrs. Chalk claimed to have seen him at her first meeting as a potential wife-murderer and had talked of Christie, Petiot and Brides-in-the-Bath Smith. Certainly the man had disappeared abruptly but, as Carolus new only too well, disappearances happened every day from a hundred causes. All the same he would give a great deal to meet Rathbone. He thanked the little estate agent and went out to his car. He had already studied his road map and took the way to Bluefield.
The village itself seemed deserted. Two women hurrying along with baskets were the only beings in sight. The population could scarcetly be more than a few hundred, and at this hour, towards dusk on a December afternoon, the women and children were within doors while the men have not yet come home from work. There was one shop which was also the post office, and a few coloured lights in its window for Christmas, instead of making it look festive, gave it a paltry kind of pathos. He also saw a cottage with a signboard announcing that teas were served there. There was an inn, however, firmly closed and without lights now, but at least offering accommodation. Carolus had no intention of sleeping this evening at Glose Cottage before it had been aired and cleaned, so he resolved to return here when he had examined the place.
He entered the post office, as Mrs. Chalk had done, to enquire the way. the postmaster, a lugubrious man, stood inappropriately among tinsel festoons, Christmas ornaments and toys. “Yes?” he said to Carolus, you’re asking brightly how to found Glose Cottage. He stared long and sadly at Carolus.
“It’s nearly a mile away,” he regretted, as his wife had done to Mrs. Chalk.
“I’ve got a car.”
“Oh! I don’t know whether you’ve come to see the Rathbones. If so, I can save you the trouble. They’ve gone.”
“Leave any address?”
“No. They went away very suddenly. Her first. Then him. No one knows where.”
“Yes. I’ve been told the bungalow is empty.”
“Was for years before they took it. Well, it’s out of the way. Funny their not leaving any address.”
“Many letters come for them?”
“No. They scarcely ever had any letters.”
“You knew them well, Mr. . . .”
“Wallbright. No, I can’t say I knew them well. He came in now and again for cigarettes or stamps. I don’t remember her ever being in the shop. She was civil enough, though, poor thing. Always had a smile when she drove by.”
“Why ‘poor thing’?”
“Well . . .” said Mr. Wallbright, adequately.
“I’ve taken the bungalow furnished,” announced Carolus.
This startled Mr. Wallbright. His chin dropped, making the long face even longer and sadder.
“You’re . . . you’re going to live there?”
“Stay there, anyhow. Could you tell me the way now?”
“I can tell you the way,” admitted the postmaster, but he made no attempt to do so. He was evidently moved by a sort of gloomy curiosity. When he could not suppress this he said: “I can’t help wondering why anyone should want to live there.”
“Damp?” suggested Carolus.
“It’s not the damp. It’s . . . You take this road straight on till you come to a fork, where it says to Gray’s Farm one way and to Barham the other. Take the left fork as though you were going to Gray’s Farm and you’ll find it on your left. There’s trees round it. It stands quite alone.”
Carolus left Mr. Wallbright to stare after him in amazement and started his car. In a few moments he came to Glose Cottage. It was all that had been said of it. Its bricks, instead of having the cheerfulness of the comparatively new building, were of a peculiarly ugly colour, and the dark green of the paintwork was hideous. Dismal cypress trees of the graveyard macrocarpa variety thrust their fingers on the very windows and dripped on the neglected garden. The front door was shadowed by a forbidding porch.
The light was fast fading and, not knowing whether he would find a usable lamp in the house, Carolus hurried forward and applied the key. The door opened easily enough, revealing a dark passage-way. It was necessary to strike a match in order to find the door-handles; but, in the first room he entered, a paraffin lap stood on a large table and there was oil enough it. Carolus lit the wick and, keeping it low till the glass had warmed, looked about him. This it appeared was the dining room, for a heavy Victorian table filled most of it; but it seemed to be used as a sitting-room, too, for two misshapen armchairs stood by the empty fireplace, in which there were still dead cinders. The room stank—a stuffy smell like rotting cheese and dead verdure was in the air.
The room on the other side of the front door was no more inviting. Presumably it was called the drawing-room, for it contained a settee and two armchairs covered with damp and colourless chintz, and a quantity of ebonized furniture. Behind it was a double bedroom—brass beds and chamber-pots—while behind the dining-room was a dark kitchen. The bathroom-lavatory was reached by a door in the kitchen, and had apparently been added to the original design, being little more than a lean-to.
This preliminary examination satisfied Carolus. Shivering slightly and thoroughly depressed he turned out the lamp, slammed the front door and made for his car; but in the road he turned and looked back. Certainly there was no sign of any work done by what Mr. Gorringer characteristically had called a horticulturist. There was light enough to see long grass growing where once, perhaps, there have been a lawn, and the hedges were untrimmed. A double gate stood before the way to the garage, the doors of which were open, revealing an empty space large enough, Carolus noted, for his car. Behind the house a bare hill rose, but that was no sign of human activity, still less of human habitation. The winter night was coming down on the desolate scene.
Carolus thought again of the bedroom he had seen and wondered whether, after all, he could bring himself to sleep in it. Fresh bedding he would have to buy, for that word ‘fungus’ which Mrs. Chalk had used in connection with Rathbone was all too telling. Perhaps after cleaning and the lighting of fires . . . but there was no doubt about it. Glose Cottage was deathly.
Then, ‘deathly’? he thought, still standing in the road looking back at the place. What exactly did he mean? Was he tinkering with occultism and suggesting that one could sense in an empty house events, crises, emotions than once filled it? Was there anything about Glose Cottage that could seriously suggest to a rational mind that a woman had been murdered there? No. Yet, Carolus admitted to self, he was not without some . . . apprehension, some strong and fearful distaste, at the thought of sleeping there. That stale and chilly air. Those dripping trees. However, he had made up his mind and the thing should be done.
Back in the village he found the cottage with the sign ‘Teas’, entered to find a warm fire and the cheerful, youngish woman whom Mrs. Chalk remembered. He ordered tea.
“Would you like some nice hot toast?” said the woman. “I’m afraid there’s nothing much else, because we don’t get many in, not in winter.”
Carolus said he would.
“Just passing through?” asked the woman chattily when she brought his tray.
“No. I’ve come to stay here.”
That caused her to glance at him. Her question had been put without curiosity, but this was evidently a surprise.
“What, in Bluefield?” she said. “I never thought anyone came here if they could help it. Perhaps you’ve got friends?”
“No. I’ve rented Glose Cottage.”
The woman behaved according to schedule.
“Rathbones’? ” she asked incredulously.
“They were the last tenants, yes. I’ve taken it furnished.”
Words, Carolus gathered, failed her. At last she found one. “Well!” she said.
“I’ve just been out to see it. It does seem rather lonely.”
“Lonely? It’s . . . Did you know them? The Rathbones, I mean.”
“No. I have never met them. Did you?”
“Oh, yes. Well, I used to see her in church on Sundays. Funny old thing she looked.”
“Old? I thought she wasn’t much over forty.”
“She looked a lot older than that. More than fifty, I should have thought. Old-fashioned-looking. Always wore thick glasses and big ear-rings. Never stopped for a chat after the service. She used to sit right at the back, always in the same place, and nip out almost before it was over. He was a bit more sociable. He has been known to pop into the Stag. But not her. She never did any shopping in the village, either. People didn’t like it. But fancy you going to live in that house! I shouldn’t like it, I’m sure.”
“No. It’s not cheerful.”
“It isn’t that. You know what they say, don’t you?”
What an idiotic yet what a frequent form of speech this was. “No. What?” Carolus gave the prescribed answer.
“They say he did for her, that’s what. It was she who had the money, you know. And I mean who’s to know, right out there in that place? He could have murdered her and buried her and none the wiser. Then he’s off no one knows where.”
“It’s not very convincing, is it?” said Carolus mildly. “Her remains could so easily be found.”
“Are you going to live there, not knowing from one moment to the next when you’re going to come on something? It’s horrible to think of. He may have chopped her up like that case in the papers. Or burnt her bit by bit in the kitchen range. You never know what they think of.”
“On the other hand, she may be alive and well.”
“She may. Oh, I dare say she may. All I can say is I wouldn’t spend a night in that bungalow not for a thousand pounds. Shall I slip out and pop a drop more hot water in the teapot? I’m sorry there’s no cake or anything. When are you moving in?”
“Immediately after Christmas. That’s if I can get someone to turn the place out in the meantime.”
“You’ll have a job. There’s no one in this village keen on going near it. The only one you might get is Mrs. Luggett. She doesn’t care what she does as long as she earns enough for a pint or two in the evening.”
“I don’t know about sensible. You never know with her. She might take it on or she mightn’t. And if she did, you wouldn’t know if she was going to turn up or not. Then again, I don’t know what she’d do when she got there. It wouldn’t be wise for you to leave any drink about, not if she was there. Mind you, she’s a good-natured woman, and all that. She’d help anyone if she’d got it. But when it comes to a job—well, I really couldn’t say. You could see her, anyway. She’ll be in at the Stag tonight, that’s a certainty, because she’s got her money today for cleaning out the village hall for the dance on Boxing Night.”
“She sounds ideal.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say anything against her. If she does have one too many sometimes, there’s others do worse, isn’t there? And I must say she couldn’t do too much for that child of hers after her husband died. He’s grown up and in the army now. No, it’s only the Name she’s got. Well, you know what it is in a small place. But she wouldn’t worry about what they say even if there was proof that Rathbone did for his wife. She’s not the sort to let that trouble her. She’s got a bicycle, too. Yes, you had a talk with Mrs. Luggett. She might suit, if you’re really going to stay up there.
“Thank you very much. I’ll ask her. Tell me, who else knew the Rathbones?”
“Well, no one, really; not to say ‘know’. The vicar went there once, I was told, and Rathbone came to the door and was very short with him. They had no calls from tradesmen, but always brought their stuff from somewhere else, by car. Fred Spender, the postman, called once in a blue moon, and I suppose he saw as much of them as anyone. They never had anyone to do any work for them or anything of that. They say the garden’s a disgrace. I can’t get over you going to live out there, really I can’t. It would give me the horrors. Still, we can’t all be the same, can we?”
Carolus paid for his tea and, observing that it was six o’clock, decided to seek accommodation at the Stag. He mentioned this to his informative hostess.
“There again I shouldn’t like to say,” was her judgement. “They’re very funny people, Mr. and Mrs. Lofting. They may be only too pleased, but then again they may not. One thing, if you do stay there tonight, you’ll find it clean. I will say that. She is very particular in that way. You could eat your dinner off the kitchen floor. It’s a pity that are not more careful in other things. Some that go there, I mean. But there you are. You can’t have everything. I hope you get fixed up all right.”
Carolus went out into the dark evening air and drove his car into the open space before the Stag.