Death on Romney Marsh
Carolus reached the Merry Widow an hour before his appointment on Friday afternoon. He hoped to elicit some information from Mrs. Sich or her less communicative partner. But the café was full of shopping baskets and dogs and women guarding them and having tea in the meantime. Mrs. Sich moved from one table to another naming her delicacies.
“We’ve got Lancashire Sly cakes,” she said, “and the real Kendal Luncheon cake. Or would you like some of our North Country Pikelets? Or the Gosforth Girdies?”
“The less-adventurous southerners replied with, “I’ll just have the tea and pastries, thanks.” But this did not damp Mrs. Sich’s enthusiasm.
“Do try the Rutlandshire Plum Shuttles,” she pleaded gaily. “Or Fochabers Gingerbread.”
A very intellectual-looking lady said—“It all sounds rather folksy. Oh, probably excellent, but I think I’ll just have some bread and butter, thanks. That’s the kind of Miss I am.”
“Mrs. Sich smiled obligingly and sped on, reaching Carolus breathless but undamped. He had just seen a card on his table Try Our Whitby Yule Cakes and said hurriedly—“Tea and toast please.”
“Red Whortleberry jelly?” suggested Mrs. Sich rather half-heartedly, to which Carolus smiled and shook his head.
It was half an hour before the rush was over, The last Parkin eaten and Mrs. Sich calm enough to attend to questions.
“I came in a few days ago with a Mr. Aschermole,” he said.
“Oh yes, said Mrs. Sich absently. Her heart was evidently with her Huish cakes.
“From Neatherd and Ely,” enlarged Carolus.
“Oh yes. I know.” Then confidentiality, “We call him the Cream Puff. Only you mustn’t tell him that.”
“Does he come in often?”
“Oh yes. Most days, really.”
“Almost always. Once or twice has had another gentleman with him. Captain Somebody. I don’t remember the name.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Sich. “We get asked a lot of questions, but I must say . . .”
“It’s a little joke between us. I wish you could tell me the name.”
“I’ll ask my partner. She might know.”
She went to the door of the kitchen.
“Trish,” she said. “What was the name of that man who used to come in with Mr. Aschermole from Neatherd and Ely’s? No, I can’t remember either. There’s a gentleman inquiring. I shall think of it in a minute.”
To encourage her Carolus bought a dozen Coventry God-cakes to take away.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue,” Mrs. Sich told him promisingly.
“I shall forget my own name next,” she added.
Carolus wondered whether the purchase of a pound of Bosworth Jumbles would assist her.
“It’s just slipped my memory,” she admitted sadly.
“Would it be Cuchran?” suggested Carolus at last.
She nearly upset a bottle of Home-made Cambridge Sauce in her excitement.
“That’s it!” she cried. “I remember it because it’s so like Cochran which was my husband’s mother’s maiden name.”
“Good. Thank you,” said Carolus. “Don’t mention it to Mr. Aschermole went comes in, will you? That would spoil the joke.”
“Of course I shan’t,” said Mrs. Sich. “I can keep a secret.”
When Aschermole came in and took a place beside Carolus, Mrs. Sich smiled and nodded as though she were in a secret, then withdrew to produce a plate of cakes smothered with some substance resembling clotted whitewash.”
“Have much trouble with the seal?” asked Carolus.
“It was a difficult operation. I had to spend several hours on it.”
Mr. Aschermole blinked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I asked if you had to open the envelope every time you sell information about its contents.”
“Mr. Aschermole made to rise.
“If you’re going to make insinuations like that I shall refuse to tell you . . .”
“Good. I’ll hear from Cuchran. It will save me seventy-five nicker.
Mr. Aschermole settled down again.
“Think you’re clever, don’t you? I didn’t give you any undertaking that you would be only one.”
“And I’m not. Who else has shewn this profitable curiosity about the contents of that envelope?”
“No one else. On my mother’s life no one else.”
“But how am I to know that?”
“I’m telling you, aren’t I? You can’t treat me like this, you know. I’m not the only one breaking the law, and don’t you forget it. You’re just as much to blame as I am, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
Carolus had asked for this, and knew it.
“How long ago did Cuchran come to see you?”
“Soon after I joined the firm. Must be something like ten years ago.”
“He wasn’t interested in Mowlett’s Will? Only the sealed envelope?”
“That’s right. But I don’t see why I should tell you all this.”
“I do. You want your money. Was that the only time?”
“No. It wasn’t. But it was a different proposition when he started coming three months ago.”
“Yes. He wanted you to sell him the document.”
“We were to destroy it together.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“We couldn’t agree on terms. Not on anything like that. That’s a serious matter, destroying a document.”
“What did you ask?”
“Considering the Will, and how anxious he was, and my job, and the possible consequences, I was not going to do it for nothing.”
“I didn’t suppose you were.”
“He came over several times about it. I shouldn’t be surprised if he comes again.”
“How much do he offer you?”
Mr. Aschermole looked bashful.
“He started with a grand. Of course I told him that was no good. I mean, with Mowlett missing and perhaps dead, it wasn’t, was it? I wasn’t to know. I told him he’d have to do better than that. More like five times better. I’ve got a wife and children to think of.”
“I was wondering when they would come into the picture.”
“You two are having a good old confab!” said Mrs. Sich. “Don’t you want some more tea?”
“Bring me some more cream cakes,” said Aschermole. “Anyway,” he went on to Carolus, “I don’t think he had the money. Or not so that he could get at in cash. So there it stands. It’s lucky for you he didn’t, because otherwise you’d never know what was in the envelope, would you?”
“Yes, eventually. It would come out in your defence.”
Mr. Aschermole seemed to shiver slightly though the room was not cold.
“Don’t start talking like that,” he said. “There’s no need for you to be so high and mighty—not when you’re breaking the law too.”
“Better shew me the paper.”
“Steady on. What about the money?”
“I have it here.”
“I think you ought to hand it over fast.”
“Shew me the paper,” said Carolus impatiently. He was feeling nauseated and not only by the cream cakes.
“It’s not a long message.”
“I didn’t think it would be.”
Aschermole produced a sheet of paper from his pocket.
“There it is,” he said. “I’ve copied it exactly.”
“On one of the office typewriters?” suggested Carolus blandly.
“What do you take me for? Anyway, that’s word for word what it is.”
Carolus read: If anything should happen to me the explanation will be found in Miss Robin’s coffin in the vault. E. Mowlett.”
“That’s all. Disappointed are you?”
“Not in the least. Here’s your money.”
“I can’t count it here,” complained Aschermole.
“There seems to be some in silver.”
“Yes. One pound ten. Thirty pieces of silver,” said Carolus grimly. “But don’t worry. As you say, I’m in the conspiracy, too.”
He paid Mrs. Sich and strode out of the Merry Widow café, determined never to return.
“Now he went into action. He wanted to finish with the case which had brought him into contact with detestable characters and made him behave unscrupulously. It was growing dark as he pulled up at Number Three, Passover Cottages, Appledore, and the home of Mrs. Flipp.
He saw her long pale face through the foliage of potted geraniums in her front window. She opened the door and whispered fiercely—“Come in quick, then. You shouldn’t come here now. My husband will be in at any minute. Whatever is it you want to know? Got no business talking like this.”
But of his two clandestine informers he found the woman less noxious.
“It’s not only what I want to know,” said Carolus, in an unhurried matter. “It’s more than that.”
“Do be quick then. If my husband comes in . . .”
“He would want half the proceeds, wouldn’t he?”
“You have to go if you don’t tell me quick.”
“Do you know the large bunch of keys that Cuchran sometimes carries? ”
A look of low cunning came over her face.
“Have you noticed two very large keys among the rest?”
She gave one of her silent nods.
“One of them is the key to the cellar door. What is the other? Or don’t you know?”
“I know all right,” said Mrs. Flipp and spread her hand flat on the table to indicate five.
In spite of the urgency of the thing Carolus was amused and put out three fingers of his own hand.
“We can’t wast time,” said Mrs.Flipp. I told you my husband will be home. it’s the family vault, up in Shirley Cross churchyard. Well, more like a mausoleum it is.”
“Do you know where the bunch of keys is kept?”
She reverted to silence, and a nod.
“Could you get that particular one? The key of the mausoleum.”
“So that’s what you’re after, is it? I don’t know about that. What it really comes to is stealing, isn’t it?”
“Borrowing. For one night.”
“It’s about the same thing, isn’t it? Besides I don’t know whether I could. It’s kept locked up, and there’s the other key first.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know where that is.”
“What I know and what I’m called upon to do are different things.”
Carolus was aware of spasmodic action in the outstretched hand whose fingers were being clenched and unclenched at great speed.
“If Cuchran was ever to find out it would be as much as my life’s worth,” she went on. “It’s not as though I was just telling you something. It’s taking it that I don’t like.”
“Perhaps there’s another key of the vault.”
“I shouldn’t think so. Not another key, They wouldn’t be. No, it’s sure to be the only one and no one can get at it unless it’s me.”
Carolus ignored the hand.
“Whatever do you want it for?” said Mrs. Flipp.
“To open the vault,” said Carolus. “Just to have a look.”
“There’s more to it than that. Or you wouldn’t be so keen on getting that key.”
“Do you think you can bring it home with you tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow? I don’t know about that. It isn’t as though it’s left lying about up there. It took me a year to find out where it’s kept and then there’s the other key to get at it. No, I don’t hardly think I could manage it by tomorrow.”
“I think you could,” said Carolus, and did some clenching and unclenching on his own account.
“Mrs. Flipp watched spellbound. She was favourably impressed.”
“I’m not saying I couldn’t try,” she said. Then asked sharply—“What’s the time?”
“Ten past six,” Carolus told her.
“There. I told you so. He’s been waiting for the Green Man to open. That’s where he’ll be. Would you believe it?”
“Shall I look in and see him there? ”
“Whatever for? D’you want everyone in Appledore to know about this? Mind you, I don’t know if I can manage it, but I’ll see. It’s not a nice thing to do.”
“No. I’ll look in tomorrow about this time, then.”
But when Carolus arrived at Passover Cottages on the following day he was received by Mrs. Flipp without jubilation.
“It’s gorn,” she said dramatically. “And the cellar one too. He’s taken them off the ring and I don’t know where he’s put them. It’s very deceitful, Isn’t it? Hiding them away like that. It can’t have been so long ago either because I saw it a week or two back.”
“So did I,” said Carolus.
There were sounds from the back room which Carolus knew indicated the arrival of Flipp. He came in and greeted Carolus politely.
“You were the bloke asking where Withers was. Did you find him? ”
“Never you mind that,” said Mrs. Flipp.
“Yes, thanks,” said Carolus. “Now there’s another little bit of information I want.”
“He won’t know. It’s no good asking him,” said Mrs. Flipp hurriedly.
“What was that?” said her husband ignoring her.
“It’s about the vault.”
“The family vault in Shirley Cross churchyard.”
“Oh yes,” said Flipp. “What we call the mausoleum.”
“Oh, do for goodness’ sake stop talking a lot of rubbish,” Mrs. Flipp said. “Why don’t you go around to he Green Man and let this gentleman be?”
“I like that!” said Flipp. “Yesterday you was yak,yak,yak because I stopped for a pint on my way home and now why don’t I go round there. Because I don’t want to go. Is that good enough?” He turned to Carolus. “What did you want to know about the mausoleum?” he asked.
“I want to get into it.”
“What’s to stop you, then?”
“I haven’t got the key.”
“Oh for God’s sake, will you stop it?” cried Mrs. Flipp desperately.
“It’s no good asking her about that. I know all about the keys. I worked there, didn’t I?”
“Keys?” said Carolus.
“I’ll murder you for this!” said Mrs. Flipp suppressing tears.
“She would, too,” grinned Flipp. “I don’t know what’s got in her head about the keys. Captain Cuchran has one of them. Up at Shirley Cross.”
“And the other?”
“The Vicar’s got that,” said Flipp. “The Reverend Mr. Romper. Has to have one by law. The family has one and he’s got the other. Well, it’s only right. The churchyard’s his, isn’t it?”
There was silence in the room but for a sound like sobbing from Mrs. Flipp.