Death on Romney Marsh
Carolus knew the town of Hastbourne Hill, a resort in the region of Hastings, Eastbourne and Bexhill, which resembled in different ways all three of them. He had learned that Messrs Neatherd and Ely, the solicitors with whom (according to Gaston) Mowlett had entrusted his Will, were the longest established in the town, the most respected and the richest. The firm was so old that the names of the original partners had long-since disappeared from its letter-headings and one saw a collection of names dissembled over the last half-century. Waistely, Elias, Mottimer and Sprott.
He did not expect a very friendly reception from any of these when they learned his business. He had no recognizable standing in the affair and even if he had their client’s instructions were probably explicit. But in the hope of a miracle he drove over to Hastbourne Hill and found the firm’s office.
He asked for the senior partner and after waiting some time in a cubby-hole was joined by a furtive individual who said he was the firm’s senior clerk.
Carolus examined him with some care. He looked like a camel snuffing the air for possibilities; even his neck was abnormally long so that he seemed to curve forward from the waist in an arc. He wore dingy clothes and his finger-nails were grimed. When he spoke it seemed to be from high in the roof of the mouth, though the voice was not shrill or whining. He was a lofty, sly and patronising man.
“Could you give me some indication of your business with Mr. Mottimer? I am his confidential clerk.”
Carolus wanted to ask him how confidential but he replied curtly—“I want to consult him.”
“My name’s Aschermole,” said the clerk giving Carolus a pitying glance which said ‘I shall know all about it later’. “I usually give Mr. Mottimer an idea of the business on new clients.”
“No comment,” said Carolus.
“Mr. Mottimer is a very busy man,” said Aschermole, his manner growing more and more superior.
“So am I, so don’t let’s waste a lot of time nattering. Go and tell Mr. Mottimer I want to see him urgently.”
The corners of Mr. Aschermole’s mouth turned down.
“He’s got someone with him now. When he’s free I’ll ask him whether he’ll see you.”
Carolus supposed he would be kept waiting a long time after that but he was wrong. Aschermole had time to do no more than enter an inner office and return.
“Mr. Mottimer will see you now,” he announced.
Mr. Mottimer was the sort of man who wanted people to say of him, “He’s a gentleman of the old school’ but only succeeded as far as the old school tie. He was over-courteous, over-dressed and overwhelming. He called his clients ‘my dear sir’ and talked of being ‘in his position’.
“And to what do I owe the honour of your call?” he asked Carolus.
“It’s a rather difficult matter to explain.”
“Ah. But we’re used to difficult matters,” Mr. Mottimer returned encouragingly.
“I am a schoolmaster,” Carolus said. “I teach at the Queen’s School, Newminster.”
“Do you, by Jove? My young nephew is going there next term. Quite a good school, I believe.”
“Quite,” said Carolus. “But in addition to teaching I occasionally undertake some investigations.”
“Of what nature?”
“I have more than once helped to solve certain problems connected with crime,” said Carolus, finding himself as pompous as his interlocutor.
Mr. Mottimer smiled benignly.
“Something in the nature of a private investigator, heh? Bit of a Sherlock Holmes, what?”
“Hardly. Just a hobby.”
“Very interesting. Very, very interesting.”
“Just recently I have been asked by Mr. Gaston Mowlett . . .”
Mr. Mottimer looked grave.
“Mowlett,” repeated Carolus.
“Please proceed,” said Mr. Mottimer sternly.
“By Mr. Gaston Mowlett to discover the whereabouts of his uncle, Edwin Mowlett. He has, it seems, disappeared.”
The ebullience had left Mr. Mottimer’s manner.
“In what sense disappeared?”
“In every sense. He was employed, as you may know, as a butler at a house called Shirley Cross on Romney marsh for many years.”
“Yes, yes. I am aware of the circumstances.”
“His employer there, a Captain Cuchran, states that on a certain night three months ago he drove him down to Dover. Mowlett has not been heard of since.”
Mr. Mottimer considered this for some moments, then said, “Why should he have been heard of? Who was there to hear of him?”
“His nephew, for one.”
“Was he a communicative man?”
“Then I fail to see where any mystery lies. He goes abroad and doubtless decides to settle in a kinder climate. Who can blame him?”
“There is a lot more to it than that . . .”
“Tell me, Mr. Deene, what is your business with me, exactly?”
“I hope you might be able to throw some light on these circumstances.”
“Are you aware of the fact that Edwin Mowlett was a client of mine?”
“Of course I am. That’s why I’ve come to see you.”
“Do you mean to say that you thought I should discuss the affairs of one of my clients with . . . with a private detective?”
“No. Not his affairs. His whereabouts, If he has any.”
“I am astounded. I should have thought the reputation of this firm was well-enough known for you to have been dissuaded from anything so foolish. And what exactly do you imply by ‘his whereabouts, if he has any’?”
“He may be dead. That’s obvious, surely.”
“And if he were, if by any chance he were, do you suppose our discretion ends with a demise of a client?”
Carolus had an uncomfortable feeling that this conversation was being listened to. Had the confidential clerk his ear to the door, or was there a tape recorder?
“You were very rash if you supposed anything of that kind,” thundered Mr. Mottimer.
Carolus watched him calmly, assessing the genuineness or otherwise of his indignation.
“You have Mowlett’s Will,” he said.
“Even if that were so, and I can make no statement in the matter, the supposition that I should give you any information about it is far-fetched.”
“You also have a sealed envelope left by Mowlett to be opened in case of his death.”
“If such a thing exists, and I make no affirmative or contrary suggestion, it would be a matter solely for the executives of the deceased.”
“I quite realize that.”
“Please be sensible, my dear Sir,” said Mottimer expansively. “If you were to come to me and say ‘Edwin Mowlett has died. Here is his death certificate. Here is his executor, or executors as the case may be’ do you know what I should say of Edwin Mowlett? I should say that after the proper investigations and confirmation of identities I should be prepared to act as called upon by the circumstances. But to come to me, utterly unauthorised, not knowing whether my client is alive or dead, and to ask for information shews that you are unaware of the traditions of the legal profession. I can say no more.”
“But you can. You can tell me if you’ve heard from Mowlett during the last three months. That would be no breach of confidence.”
“I trust you will allow me, my dear sir, to decide what would or would not be a breach of confidence.”
“You’re not very helpful, are you?”
“I believe I am not thought to be an unhelpful man.”
“Suppose Gaston Mowlett himself comes to see you?”
“On what matter?”
“His uncle’s disappearance.”
“Supposing that he was able to give proof of his identity, and supposing he is named as executor in his uncle’s Will, and bears proof that his uncle is dead, I might be prepared to see him. But only if all those conditions are fulfilled.”
“You realize that you are impeding what may be very urgent enquiries? A life may quite possibly be in danger.”
“In that case surely the police would be the proper people to consult me? No, my dear sir, I have nothing whatsoever to say to you. I will not say that your coming to me was an act of effrontery, rather of ignorance of the traditions of correct conduct which govern this firm.”
“I don’t want to see the Will,” said Carolus. “It’s that sealed envelope.”
“Please!” said Mr. Mottimer, holding up his hand. “I don’t want to have to speak more cleanly. I have no doubt your intentions are not offensive. But any further discussion is useless.”
It was what Carolus had expected and he said no more. Mr. Mottimer rose with rather exaggerated courtesy and shewed him to the door.
But in the outer office he had a surprise. Mr. Aschermole craned his neck over him and simply perfectly clear voice: “I usually go to the Merry Widow Café when I leave here. About five.”
Carolus, though willing to take advantage of this, could not bring himself to answer cordially. He nodded, and this was all Mr. Aschermole required.
In the street Carolus enquired the way to the Merry Widow Café and was told it was ‘straight down on the left-hand side’. When he saw its new bow-fronted window and display of home-made confectionery and biscuits made from oatmeal and jams with handwritten labels and solid blocks of fudge, he knew what he was in for but courageously entered. He was greeted by two middle-aged ladies who wore green overalls and artificial pearls. That was no one else in the cafe.
“China tea, please,” said Carolus.
“You’ll have some home-made cakes, won’t you?”
“Just tea.” But seeing disappointment in their faces added—“unless I could have some buttered toast.”
“With Barberry jam and Devonshire cream?”
“No, thanks very much.”
Carolus remembered Miss Skipton, governess long ago of the Two Graces, and wondered whether this were the sort of competition she had to face in Rye.
“My partner will soon get your tea. My post is here in the shop,” said one of the ladies, smiling.
“And which of you is the merry widow?” asked Carolus with fatuous amiability.
“We both are!” cried the lady archly. “We often get asked that. Though we haven’t opened so very long. This is a comparatively new venture.”
Carolus could think of absolutely nothing to say.
“Before this we tried pottery.”
“No,” said the lady. “It wasn’t a success. My brother suggested this. ‘Give them something to put in their tums,’ he said, ‘if you want to make money.’ Ah, here comes your tea and toast.”
At the same moment Mr. Aschermole entered wearing a long black mackintosh and a cloth cap. He nodded to the merry widows and came to Carolus.
“Mind if I join you?”
Carolus nodded a grudging agreement.
A party of chattering teenagers had fortunately entered behind him and sitting near the door occupied the full attention of the windows.
“It seems to me,” said Mr. Aschermole, “that there’s only one question we’ve got to decide, viz how much?”
‘Viz nothing,’ Carolus wanted to say. But at least Mr. Aschermole’s approach might shorten this unpleasant interview.
“Well, how much?”
“It’ll have to be a hundred quid,” he replied, sadly shaking his head as though he were a doctor giving an unwelcome diagnosis. “Can’t be done for less.”
“I’m not interested in the Will,” said Carolus.
“Oh no. I didn’t suppose you were,” said Mr. Aschermole in his maddeningly superior voice. “If it had been the Will it would have been more. Considerably more, in fact. The sum quoted is to cover the contents of the sealed envelope.”
“Your hearing must be particularly good.”
“Not necessarily. But that’s by the way. Is it on?”
This was really very unpleasant, an outrage to all sense of decency. It was also criminal. That worried Carolus less than the feeling that he was involving himself in a sordid conspiracy.
“When could you deliver?” he said.
“It all depends. You don’t want to run away with the idea that it’s easy. I’ve got to wait for a reason to work late at the office. Then there’s the seal. It all takes time.”
“And skill,” said Carolus sarcastically.
“And skill, agreed Mr. Aschermole eagerly. “It’s not everyone who can deal with a seal like that, to leave it as though it was untouched. I really ought to have said twice the money.”
“What is the latest date for delivery? It’s no good to me if it’s not soon.”
“It’s not, eh? I suppose I could do it this week.”
“I should want an undertaking to that effect. Say Friday.”
“Fifty now. Fifty on delivery,” intoned Mr. Aschermole.
“No. Twenty-five now. The rest on Friday.”
Mr. Aschermole looked hostile but turned aside to give his order.
“The usual please, Mrs. Sich.”
“Yes. Tea and cream cakes.”
“Lots of cream cakes,” said Mr. Aschermole. “I like cakes with cream in them,” he told Carolus. You wouldn’t get anyone else to do this, you know,” he went on. “What about my position?
“You doubtless considered that.”
“It may mean a lot of copying out.”
“It may. I shouldn’t think so, but it’s possible.”
“In cash, of course?”
“You don’t think I’m going to write you out a cheque, do you?”
“On the nail, I mean. I don’t know anything about you, do I?”
“No. But I know quite a lot about you.”
There was a long pause.
“I wanted fifty now,” said Mr. Aschermole, regretfully.
Carolus did not comment. He did not need to.
“I’ve never done anything of this kind before,” claimed Mr. Aschermole.
Carolus appeared to eye him anxiously.
“You haven’t? Then how do I know you can manage that seal? I understood it was a skilled job. Perhaps we had better . . .”
“I can deal with the seal all right. I told you that.”
“You have experience?”
“I said I’d deliver.”
“On Friday. We could meet here at this time.”
Mr. Aschermole’s tea arrived and he set himself with ferine eagerness to demolish the cream cakes.
“Are you going to give me the fifty now?”
“Twenty-five,” said Carolus.
“All right then. Twenty-five.”
“It’s already in your overcoat pocket.”
Mr. Aschermole stared.
“Mean to say you trusted me?” he asked in astonishment.
“Trusted you? You’re joking. But I knew you’d agree.” He turned with a smile to Mrs. Sich to ask for his bill.
“Don’t go for a minute,” pleaded Mr Aschermole, cream whitening his lips. “Why are you so keen on knowing what’s in that envelope?”
“Curiosity,” said Carolus.
“You must have some reason. I suppose you get a commission from Gaston Mowlett?”
“Could be,” said Carolus. “I’ll see you on Friday.”
“If all is well,” said Aschermole who was fumbling hurriedly in his overcoat pocket.
“Wouldn’t you like some more cream cakes?” asked Carolus.
“Yes, I think I will.”
As Carolus at last escaped the café, Mr. Aschermole had already started on his second dish.