A Bone and a Hank of Hair
Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance with the tea tray of Mrs. Stick who for many years had been housekeeper and guardian angel to Carolus Deene. There was nothing angelic in her appearance, however, especially as she eyed the tall woman in black with hostile suspicion. It was her aim, too frequently frustrated, to prevent her employer from involving himself in what she called “those nasty murder cases”, and as Carolus saw the expression on her small dried bespectacled face he knew that she had guessed or overheard enough to see in the visitor a portent of dangers to come.
“What brought you to me?” asked Carolus when his housekeeper had left the room.
“I heard of you from Bonny Gorringer,” said Mrs. Chalk calmly.
“From whom?” exclaimed Carolus, for he had never heard the name.
“Bonny Gorringer. Your headmaster’s wife.”
Carolus was, it is true, senior history master at the Queen’s School, Newminster, and his headmaster had a wife, but he had never heard her referred to by her husband with anything like such familiarity.
“Her name’s Ada,” he said.
“I know. She’s related to my husband. Ada Chalk before she was married. But we have always called her Bonny. Short for Bon Mot, you see. The poor thing believes she’s a wit.”
“Ah, I see. And she suggested . . .”
“It appears that you have solved a few odd mysteries here and there and Bonny lent me your book Who Killed William Rufus? And Other Mysteries of History. She explained that her husband wasn’t keen on you involving yourself in the investigation of murder, but as she believes this to be a new disappearance it would be all right. I haven’t yet disillusioned her.”
“The school breaks up tomorrow for the Christmas holidays,” observed Carolus, “and I have no immediate plans.”
“Then get to work,” invited Mrs. Chalk. “There’s certainly one murder here if not more. Personally I shouldn’t be surprised if you find a string of them. That’s so often happens, doesn’t it?”
“No. It doesn’t,” said Carolus sharply. “There have been mass murderers, in the old world and the new, but no one fortunately can say they happen ‘so often’.”
“Well, you know what I mean. And in this case I sense it. Rathbone has that stale and squalid quality which one feels Christie and Petiot must have had. He is like some revolting fungus.”
“You called him a ‘long weasel of a man’.”
“Don’t pick on my words, Mr. Deene. When you find him you’ll see that there is truth in both of my descriptions. Will you have a go at this thing?”
“The only kind of investigation that interests me,” he said at last, “is of murder. There is no evidence of murder here. A man and wife realize what money they can on the wife’s estate and vanish. They may have a thousand reasons for doing so.”
“Rubbish. I smelt murder in that house.”
To Mrs. Chalk’s surprise Carolus took that remark seriously.
“I think I know what you mean,” he said.
“And if they’ve just gone away, why did the wife go first, and where? And why was the woman who supplied keys so positive that Mrs. Rathbone was tall, when my cousin was distinctly small? Above all, where are they now?”
Carolus seemed unable to decide.
“It’s unusual in some respects,” he said, “but it would mean breaking a principle. Let me think it over.”
The tall woman rose.
“I understand I shall see you at Bonny’s tomorrow night.”
Carolus winced at the name and recalled that it was the headmaster’s custom on the last evening of the Christmas term to invite his staff to enjoy what he described, with well-meaning inaccuracy, as a festive occasion. He had not yet been asked, but he feared the inevitable invitation; Mr. Gorringer was scarcely likely to spare one of his usual audience. A large sententious man with immense red ears and an air of self-important amiability, he would certainly be at his most verbose, and Carolus would have to suffer it.
When Mrs. Chalk had gone, Carolus sank deep in his chair behind the evening paper while his housekeeper was clearing away the tea-things. But in vain.
“You’ll excuse me, sir,” said Mrs. Stick peremptorily.
Carolus looked up.
“Far be it from me not to know my place,” the little woman began. “I’m sure neither Stick nor me wouldn’t ever presume to say anything when it was no business of ours. But I couldn’t help overhearing a word or two that the person who’s just left said. And one of those words was ‘murder’.”
“Was it? Yes, I do seem to remember.”
“It wasn’t as though we haven’t put up with it often enough, sir. Police and that coming to the house and you going off and us never knowing whether we’ll ever set eyes on you again. I said to Stick just now, I said; if this is going to be another of those nasty cases with corpses and that, we shall have to go, I said. I’m sure I do everything I can to make you comfortable and neither of us can’t think why you want to get yourself mixed up in such things. . . .”
“Mrs. Stick,” said Carrolus firmly. “The lady who has just left is a relation by marriage of Mrs. Gorringer.” His housekeeper stared at Carolus. “She is a Mrs. Chalk. The headmaster’s wife was a Miss Chalk before her marriage. Does that satisfy you?”
“I’m sure I didn’t mean to say anything out of place,” said Mrs. Stick, daunted by this reference to authority. “Only I didn’t know but whether she wasn’t one of these murderesses. I mean we’ve got so that we never know what to think when you have someone come to see you. And as I said to Stick, we don’t want any more of that after the last time. Now I’ve got a nice consummay for you tonight with a fricassay de poison and a striped steak grillay. What time would you like your dinner?”
“About eight,” said Carolus absently. “Tell me, Mrs. Stick, what made you think my visitor had something to do with murder? Did you notice her, I mean?”
“Well, sir, I’ve got eyes in my head. I must have been wrong, seeing that she’s connected with Mrs. Gorringer, who’s most respectable I’m sure, but there was something about that person in black.
“Something I didn’t like. That’s what made me speak. She seemed to be after something, if you know what I mean. I said to Stick, I said, she hasn’t come here for nothing. She had a sort of greedy look, I thought.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Stick. You’re very observant.”
On the following evening Carolus prepared, without enthusiasm, to dine with the headmaster, for he had received his invitation that morning. This was an annual event which he would gladly have evaded. Already viewed critically by his colleagues, who resented his large private income, his Bentley Continental car, his too correct and varied clothes and his comfortable home, Carolus forced himself to join in all school activities rather than let it be thought that he felt indifferent or superior to them, But Mr. Gorringer’s Christmas Party was a trial.
Carolus, a slight pale widower in his forties, an ex-boxing blue and ex-Commando who sincerely loved his work as senior history master at the Queen’s School, Newminster, was always made somewhat uncomfortable by the exuberant pomposity of Mr. Gorringer on occasions of festivity, while Mrs. Gorringer, with her reputation as a wit, was no less—to be brutal—a pain in the neck. But Christmas, as Mr. Gorringer had asseverated in inviting Carolus, comes but once a year, and there was no decent means of escape. Besides, the woman in black would be there.
The evening started innocuously with a cocktail by the drawing-room fire. Carolus wondered how such a watery Martini could reasonably be called dry, but sipped with the rest. Hollingbourne, a maths master, tall with long teeth and a great flat chin, talked in his monotonous bass voice, while his wife looked as though she was worrying about the children, as indeed she was.
Mrs. Chalk was the last to enter the room and, when introductions had been made, Mr. Gorringer repeated a little joke of his wife’s, made when they were first engaged, about the difference between chalk and cheese. It looked like being a jolly evening. Mr. Gorringer jokingly carved the turkey and they was served with a wine from some country other than France or Germany, a wine which the headmaster had “discovered”. What was it? Swiss? Greek? Albanian? Tunisian Carolus could not remember afterwards, but it tasted of resin and black currants.
“It came to my ears,” exclaimed Mr. Gorringer proudly, “that certain discriminating bottlers had imported a few barrels only of this excellent vintage and I saw my chance. Deene, my dear chap, I should like the opinion of a connoisseur.”
Oh God! thought Carolus and saved himself with an adjective.
“Very interesting,” he said.
Mrs. Hollingbourne said “lovely”, Tubley, the music master said, “smooth on the palate”, and Mrs. Chalk said nothing at all.
“So we come to the end of another school year,” reflected Mr. Gorringer tentatively.
“Yes, indeed,” said Hollingbourne.
“We have certainly earned out of vacation, I feel. I did my last report yesterday.”
“Yes, dear, I heard the explosion,” said Mrs. Gorringer.
So ‘the ball of wit was tossed lightly to and fro’ until Carolus found himself alone with the headmaster, Tubley, Hollingbourne and a bottle of Port Type from the boundless winefields of Australia.
“I gather,” said Mr. Gorringer archly to Carolus, “that our friend Mrs. Chalk may have found something to intrigue you, my dear Deene?”
“She mentioned some curious circumstances,” admitted Carolus.
“Curious, indeed. If one disappearance makes a mystery, what do two disappearances make?”
“A bore, possibly. One can’t tell.”
Mr. Gorringer gave a portentous wink to Hollingbourne and Tubley.
“A bore, Deene? To you, to whom mystery is the very breath of your nostrils? You are surely being facetious. We know you too well, eh, Hollingbourne? You need not feel in this case that you may displease your headmaster by your intervention. This is no squalid story of murder which might bring your name and that of the school into disrepute. There are unknown corpses here, Deene, such as too often seem to attract your interest. Here is only a mystery, a deep mystery certainly, but not one whose solution calls for dark and undesirable activities on your part. I rejoice that you seem to be interesting yourself.”
“What do you know of Mrs. Chalk, Headmaster?”
“Mrs. Chalk? Oh, she has little or no connection with the affair. She has been out of England for years and only returned a month since.”
“Still, what do you know of her?”
“A worthy person, I opine. Not, perhaps, of a social status such as one might expect in the wife of Mrs. Gorringer’s cousin, Montague Chalk, but worthy. An excellent mother, I believe.”
“I should imagine, scrupulously. To be candid, my wife’s acquaintance with her has not been profound, but Mrs. Gorringer, as you know, has perceptions as keen as her wit and finds nothing to criticize in her cousin’s wife except, perhaps, that she seems to work mistake in an invitation to pass with us a day or two for an altogether more expansive proposal. But I cannot see what bearing . . .”
“Oh, none, probably. She told me a very odd story.”
The headmaster beamed.
“Then I am sure it is to your taste,” he said. “While Hollingbourne and I, not to mention Tubley, take our well-earned relaxation, you, my dear Deene, will be busy unravelling this oddity, this mesh of circumstances which has been brought to you. You will certainly discover the errant pair. You will, I hope, be able to restore them to their friends and family.”
“I haven’t yet decided to do anything about it.”
“But you will, Deene, and I wish you, er . . . good hunting, as the expression is, and a happy ending to your project. And now . . . shall we join the ladies?”
They did, and Carolus managed to place himself beside Mrs. Hollingbourne. He felt a little tired, and the downrightness of Mrs. Chalk, the sprightliness of Mrs. Gorringer—‘Bonny’, he thought irreverently—would be too much for him. He was wondering in fact whether that name had not been a malicious invention when Mrs. Chalk used it, quite loudly, across the room. “Thanks, Bonny,” she said for her refilled coffee-cup.
Mrs. Gorringer was by no means nonplussed. “That old nickname!” she said. “Went out years ago. Puts you terribly out of date. Nobody has used it for a century. My Bonny’s gone over the ocean, in fact.”
“But the mots go on,” said Mrs. Chalk sharply.
The headmaster introduced a diversion. “I was congratulating Deene,” he said, “on having such a nice little mystery brought to his door, an occupation for his Christmas holidays. And one, I am pleased to say, which will embarrass none of us. He has got to discover whither may have fled a middle-aged couple, remote connections by marriage of my wife’s.”
“The remoter the better, so far as Rathbone’s concerned,” put in Mrs. Chalk with her usual bluntness.
“I told you, Headmaster, that I haven’t yet made up my mind whether I can be useful or not.”
“By the way,” said Mrs. Chalk, addressing Carolus across the room, “there is one circumstance I forgot to mention to you yesterday.” Her harsh voice and suddenly intense manner held the attention of them all. “When I eventually reached that perfectly awful house of the Rathbones, I knocked in vain for a time. Then I saw an electric bell and rang it consistently. It must have been some minutes before Rathbone at last opened.”
“Yes?” said Carolus.
“He did not wish me to enter and I believe I know why. He had been digging.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I don’t think. I know it. He had hurried in from the garden at the back of the house, and in his perturbed state had forgotten to leave the garden fork outside. It stood in the hall. I could see the muddy water which had run from it. Besides, his boots . . .”
“A horticulturalist, perchance?” suggested Mr. Gorringe placidly.
“Nonsense! The house was surrounded by wilderness.”
“Did he make any reference to what he had been doing?”
“He murmured something about potatoes, I seem to remember.”
“Come now, Mrs. Chalk,” said Gorringer. “You are not going to suggest anything morbid, I trust? You assured us yesterday that all you would ask of Deene was to find your cousin.”
“Yes. That’s all. Alive or dead.”
“Dead?” moaned the headmaster.
“Of course. Dead as a doornail. No question of it.”
“I think,” said Carolus, quietly, “I think I will see what I can do. Bluefield, you say, beyond Canterbury? Glose Cottage. And the solicitors? Mumble, Gray and Mumford of Boot Street, Bloomsbury? The estate agent who has it in hand? Drubbing of Grimsgate. Thank you. And thank you, Mrs. Gorringer, for a delightful evening. Good night, Headmaster. Brighton these holidays?”
“No, no,” said Mr. Gorringer severely. “At Christmas our own home. I hope . . .”
“Good night,” said Carolus, cheerfully grabbing his coat from a vast erection called a hatstand which rose grimly like some hideous ruminant in the entrance hall.
“Happy Christmas to you all. Good night.”
Before there was more than a rising murmur of response, he was on his way homewards.