Death on Romney Marsh
The immediate preoccupation of Carolus was to get away with this information. Realizing as he did its full significance, he could scarcely see how he would be allowed to do so.
He pushed the lid of the coffin loosely in its place and once again looked out. Then he extinguished his torch, went outside and by an effort closed the door after him. He turned the key then flung it into the darkness. Whatever awaited him he did not intend to be locked in that mausoleum if he could help it.
It began to rain, not with slowly increasing intensity but suddenly with force intensified by the wind. He tried to shelter under the narrow portico of the mausoleum but found that it did little to protect him.
He was overwhelmingly convinced that enemies were about him and the rainstorm seemed to make their approach more difficult to detect. More than ever Carolus was oppressed by this sense of isolation among hostile forces which were closing in on him. It was not Cuchran’s threats, or the two men at the Blue Boys, or any specific manifestation but an almost psychic belief that he was in danger, perhaps mortal danger.
He could only wait for the return of the MG and in order to do so in as little discomfort as possible he decided to make for the church porch. He had a good sense of direction and his eyes were once again becoming accustomed to the dark, but there was no paved path and he tripped over mounds and barked his knee on a gravestone before he approached it. With a sense of relief he groped his way to its shelter.
As he did so he realized his mistake. Someone was there before him.
Though Carolus could not see or hear in the porch he was certain that he was not alone. But he had no time to protect himself. A blow came from the darkness as though there had been an explosion in own head. He lost consciousness, but from a blank depth he saw—or thought in retrospect that he saw—familiar features distorted over him.
Then he dropped into a void.
There were recurrent moments of returning consciousness during the measureless space of time which followed. He was on a stone floor once, and once exposed to the stormy rain. He was being lifted and now there was agonising pain in his limbs and head. He was in a car in motion. Then again he was in a void from which he wanted no awakening. There seemed to be great chasms of time and distance.
Later, blissfully, there was light about him and he was in bed.
Through the mist he knew there was something he must say before he died. Something he had seen that must be communicated. It was terribly important.
“Am I going to die?” he asked of no one in a particular.
A calm young feminine voice said—“Of course you’re not. Lie still and don’t worry.”
It was a nurse, cool, clean, pink, smiling, a lovely sight.
“Hospital?” he asked.
The nurse nodded and said, “Don’t try to move. You’re in plaster. But you’ll be all right.”
There were other presences, a man in white, women, and then unconsciousness again.
His next awakening was to full consciousness. The same nurse was with him and still seem a white angel.
“I’m thirsty,” he said, and suddenly discovered that he was seeing her with only one eye. He tried to lift his hand to the other but could not.
“Have I lost it?” he asked.
“No. But wait till you see it. It’s a shocker. You haven’t lost anything.”
He tried to grin.
“Sure?” he said.
She grinned, too.
A woman who seemed to him immense was standing over him. Immense and regal.
“Tell Dr. Mewnes,” she ordered in rich contralto tones.
A cadaverous man appeared who smiled, looking disconcertingly like a skull.
“The police want a statement from you. Do you feel well enough to give it?”
“No,” said Carolus instantly.
He closed his eye again and wanted to be quit of them all, to lie in peace for a long time.
“They’ve been waiting for twenty-four hours,” said the doctor.
Carolus wanted to laugh.
“They’ll have to wait longer than that. I want to sleep.”
But—it may have been a day later—he could no longer pretend that he was not able to answer questions. His mind was clear and though he felt moment pain whenever he moved he was capable of dealing with the police or, almost, anyone else.
Two C.I.D. men were shewn in, smiling professionally. Carolus took the offensive.
“I’m not ready to make a statement yet,” he said.
One C.I.D. man smiled politely.
“You’re looking all right,” he said. “Compared with when you were brought in, I should say you were fit.”
“It’s not that. I want to sort out my ideas. You shall hear all I know in good time.”
“I’m afraid we can’t leave it like that. Someone tried to murder you.”
“I don’t think so. Just to put me out of action for a time.”
“Would you recognize your assailant?”
“No. But you might find me far more co-operative later.”
“We’ve got our duty to do,” said the C.I.D. man, not, Carolus thought for the first or hundredth time.
“I know you have. So have I, In a funny way. Does my aunt know I am here?”
It was clear that the C.I.D. men did not know of his relationship with Miss Morrow.
“I would like her told. What about Dennis Churcher?”
“He found you, he says. We have interrogated him once and shall have to do so again. Don’t you think it would be better for everyone, Mr. Deene, if you would tell us the truth?”
“Not just at present.”
“What were you doing in that church porch?”
“Sheltering from the rain,” said Carolus. “Now look here, all I ask is time. I’ve told you I shall let you what I know. But when I am ready. You’re wasting your time now.”
“You had a revolver on you.”
“Licensed,” said Carolus. “Come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.”
He closed his eye again and without any difficulty at all fell asleep.
Later that day he was given what was called light diet and asked one of the nurses whether a young man called Churcher had asked to see him. The nurse, a superior young lady, said—“There’s something downstairs with his long hair down his back, dressed like the chorus in a pantomime, if you mean that,” she sniffed.
“Could I see him?” asked Carolus politely.
“I shall have to Ask. I didn’t think you’d be interested, to tell you the truth.”
In the light of day Dennis’s appearance was somewhat bizarre, as Carolus had to admit, for a rose-coloured jacket with gilt facings surmounted a pair of white skin-tight trousers.
“Camp, isn’t it?” he said when he saw Carolus examining his get-up. “Can’t let the queers have all the fun. How are you feeling?”
“Shaky. Tell me about it.”
I drove up on time but there was no sign of you, so I decided to take a look around. I tramped all over that Churchyard, tripping over graves, unable to see a blind thing. Then I thought I’d look in the porch. You were lying inside it and I thought you were dead. Gosh, they’d given you a going over.”
“Yes. I do know that. Any sign of them?”
“No. They’d probably been gone for some time. Who were they?
I don’t know. Professionals, anyway. Go on.”
“I found there was some life in you. I didn’t know what to do—leave you there alone while I tried to get help or what. I decided to ’phone for the police. I don’t know whether it was the right thing to do.”
“The only thing, I should say.”
“I went to the ’phone box on the cross-roads and was back in a few minutes. I half-expected you to have been taken away, or petered out altogether, but you hadn’t moved. I will say the Law were on the spot pretty smartly and they soon got an ambulance. Then they began on me. What was I doing there? How long had I been with you? The lot. They thought it was I who’d beaten you up, I think. I told them more or less the truth. I had to, really. I couldn’t just say I’d chanced on you, could I?
“No. I suppose not.”
“I had to tell them who you were, anyway. I didn’t say you were related to Miss Morrow. Didn’t think you want her dragged in.”
“Quite right. She can know now that I’m more or less all right. In fact I want to see her.”
“I’ll tell her then. You know about the Cuchrans, of course?”
“What about them?”
“Done a moonlight. Gone. Into thin air.”
“When was this?”
“Apparently while you were being beaten up. The woman who works there, Mrs. Flipp, turned up as usual in the morning and found the place empty. Clothes gone.”
“Another disappearance,” said Carolus thoughtfully. “No wonder the police are impatient.”
“Impatient? They grilled me. No rough stuff, I must admit, but they kept me there most of the night.”
“There are one or two things I want you to do, Dennis. I seem to be asking a lot.”
“S’all right. I’m quite enjoying myself.”
“First see Aunt Vicky. Tell her there are no more mysteries. At the cost of a black eye I’ve found out all she wants to know.”
“Then ring up a man named Gaston Mowlett. The number’s in my pocket-case if you’ll hand it to me. Ask him to come down here tomorrow at four o’clock. He probably won’t want to, but ask him anyway.”
“Then, if you feel like a run, go over to Newminster. You can do it by ’phone but I think you may be amused.”
“First see of my housekeeper, Mrs. Stick. Tell her I am staying a few days with my aunt.
“It’s been in the local paper.”
“We must just hope she won’t see that. Then go to the Headmaster’s House of the Queen’s School and ask for Mr. Gorringer. Tell him enough of the truth to whet his appetite. If he wants to know any more you can come over tomorrow at four o’clock.”
“Will do,” said Dennis.
He was about to leave when a galleon in full sail bore down on him.
Matron was with them.
“Who,” she asked, “are you?”
“Hullo, Matron,” said Carolus casually. “My visitor’s just leaving.”
“Your visitor should not have been allowed here at all.”
“He’s done me a power of good.”
“Of that I have the gravest doubts. I should find such a colour-scheme disturbing, were I a patient.”
“Have you ever been?” Carolus asked, wonderingly, as Dennis slid from the room.
“I have never had a day’s illness in my life,” proclaimed Matron. “Nor have I ever suffered from an accident. I don’t allow accidents.”
“Very sensible of you. Coming to the showdown tomorrow?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m going to run over the points of this mystery to the police. I wondered if you’d like to come. Should be quite interesting. Corpses. Coffins. Disappearances.”
“I shall decide whether you are in a fit condition to receive anyone, Including the police,” said Matron haughtily.
“That’s the spirit,” said Carolus. “Keep them in their places, eh?”
“Sister!” called Matron musically but with hauteur. “I think this patient requires a sedative. He seems to be in a condition of excitement, if not hysteria.”
“But do come,” said Carolus. “Four o’clock.”
Matron was already sweeping magnificently from the room. But at the door she paused and gave Carolus a magnanimous smile.
“I shall consider it,” she said, and sailed out.
“You shouldn’t be cheeky to Matron,” said Sister.
“Cheeky? I’d as soon be cheeky to a statue of Queen Victoria. I think she’s magnificent.”
“You should see her if anyone tries anything!” went on Sister admiringly. “All the doctors are afraid of her.”
“I can quite believe it!”
“She’s the terror. But she can be ever so kind.”
They were interrupted by Aunt Vicky.
“I met such a strange person in the corridor, dear,” she told Carolus. “She said something about its not being a visiting hour. She somewhat resembled the late Queen Mary. Only larger.”
“Matron!” said Carolus. “You haven’t been disrespectful to her, have you?”
“Oh not in the least. I simply told her that I was going to see my nephew. Quite firmly, of course. She began saying something about it being for her to say, but I hurried on. How are you, dear boy? I hear you were attacked by that man’s hired bullies.”
“Did you? You shouldn’t believe everything you’re told.”
“He’s fled, of course. Made a bolt for it with that woman he calls his wife. But they won’t get far. Interpol won’t take their eyes off them. Hanging should never have been abolished.”
Aunt Vicky stayed for about half an hour and promised to return next day.
“Though if you try to make me believe that man isn’t a murderer I shall know you’re not as clever as you’re supposed to be,” she warned.
In the morning Dennis came to report on his visit to Newminster.
“I don’t know how much your housekeeper believed,” he said.
“Very little I should think. Did she ask any awkward questions?”
“Just what you were doing. ‘So long as he does it away from home it’s his own affair,’ she said. ‘It’s when I don’t know who’s coming to the door next that I don’t like it.’ That’s all. I assured her you’d be home in a day or two.”
“What about the headmaster?”
“He looked at me as though I was something on show in a zoo. When I told him I was at the University he looked rather scared I thought. I explained more or less what have been happening over here and he shook his head is a tragic sort of way and said, ‘Ah Deene, Deene.’ I asked him to come over tomorrow but he said the means of transportation were unfortunately lacking, unless perchance I had some accommodation to offer. I saw where this was leading and said I doubted if he could get in the MG. ‘In term time decidedly not,’ he said. ‘It would never do for the headmaster of the Queen’s School, Newminster, to be seen in a vehicle so unsuited to my position. But during the vacation, who knows? It is time for the relaxation of some of our sterner contradictions. The good Deene will tell you that it will not be the first time I have embarked on adventurous projects in order to keep a restraining hand on him.’ What could I do? I offered to go and fetch him. ‘That is indeed kind of you,’ he told me. ‘The car I trust is of the closed variety?’ I said I would keep him out of sight. So he’s coming.”
“Are you taking him back?” asked Carolus with some amusement.
“I suppose so. If he can stand it.”