Death on Romney Marsh
“What do you expect to learn from going round the house?” Gaston asked Carolus while they were still alone. “I should have thought if there were anything worth discovering he wouldn’t be so keen to shew us.”
“I don’t expect to find a corpse, if that’s what you think. But there may be some unconsidered trifles of information to snap up. I am incorrigibly inquisitive.”
When they joined Cuchran in the tiled hall and saw his mighty bunch of keys the prospect was more chilling. Nor did he lend it much cheer. He looked sulky and hostile.
“We’ll commence at the top,” he said and, with more agility than one would have thought, started up the wide staircase.”
Every door on the first floor was closed. Here there were no more trophies but, as one would have expected, a large collection of sporting prints correctly but cheerlessly framed in black. The second floor was not unlike the first except that the rooms were more numerous.
“Any of these rooms occupied?”
“The last house party was in the 1930’s, I believe,” said Cuchran.
The staircase leading to the third floor was narrow and carpeted with rotten matting.
“The servants’ bedrooms,” said Cuchran unnecessarily. “They haven’t been used since my father-in-law’s father’s time. He died in 1910. My father-in-law forbade the use of them. There was only one staircase and he was afraid of fire.”
“Was that the reason?” Carolus sounded rather bitter. “One would have thought he might have been afraid of a slaves’ rebellion.”
Cuchran opened the door of one room. It was still furnished with a wash stand on which were an enamelled jug and basin, while there was just room for a narrow iron bedstead and a deal chest of drawers.
“Good gracious. How did they keep clean?”
“There’s a tap on this landing. Presumably they filled their basins at it.”
An unpleasant fustiness was noticeable.
“Rats?” asked Gaston.
“Probably,” said Carolus. “These rooms must be stifling in summer and icy cold in winter. And up to Edwardian times you could still find human beings would live in these conditions.”
“Better than some of them had been used to,” put in Gaston sourly.
“Do you want to go through all these rooms?” asked Cuchran.
“No, let’s just try that one,” said Carolus, making a chance selection like a customs’ officer choosing one of a dozen suitcases.
The room proved to be identical with the first except that a coloured supplement to an illustrated paper, depicting ‘Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales’, had been pasted on cardboard and hung on the wall. The pink and white faces shewn were of the bearded blue-eyed man and the kindly woman with a fringe who later reigned as Edward VII and Alexandra.
“It’s too much,” said Carolus. “Let’s go down.”
The rooms below these were larger and better furnished and there were two bathrooms on the floor. The furniture used by house-party guests remained here and faded chintz curtains were still up.
“I don’t know what you’re looking for,” said Cuchran snappishly. “I can’t remember Mowlett ever coming up to these rooms. I don’t think anyone has since the war.”
They made a fairly thorough examination of the guest rooms, but the house was depressing with its ghostly memories of cheerful times. Some of the notorious bright young people may have stayed here, Carolus reflected—perhaps the immortal Agatha Runicible herself.
They came down to the first floor.
“This is our room,” said Cuchran standing firmly in front of the door. “My wife is lying down just now. She’s not well. And I take it you would scarcely expect to find Mowlett under my bed. But I will shew you our sitting room.”
This was a surprise. Among the bare and damp-smelling rooms in that draughty house they were suddenly in the midst of the comfort, warmth, and light of a charming room. A fire was burning in the hearth and cleverly shaded lights gave an amber glow to the soft colours. Carolus looked rather shyly about him; this was so very much an intrusion. He was sure, however, that the room had been occupied in the last fifteen or twenty minutes at most—probably from the moment when Cuchran left them to get his keys. It had that indefinably expectant air of a room which has just been left.
Carolus made no comment but felt that whatever was the truth about Cuchran or events in this house he could not decently continue this inspection. He had started it from motives more of curiosity than of honest research. Perhaps Cuchran knew what he was feeling.
“Satisfied?” he asked in a bitter and unfriendly way.
“Could we, I wonder, just have a look at the rooms Mowlett occupied?” asked Carolus.
“I’ve been waiting for you to say that. It is all you have to smallest claim to do. Yes. You can see Mowlett’s quarters. They’re off the kitchen.”
‘Mowlett’s quarters’ turned out to be a commodious and comfortable flat with an entrance from the kitchen and one from outside. It had been formed from the butler’s pantry and perhaps former larders and stillrooms. There was a sitting-room, bedroom and a modern bathroom. The furniture was newer than that in the rest of the house, purchased one would think expensively. There were deep armchairs and a television set.
“We tried to make the old boy comfortable,” said Cuchran. “He could have stayed here as long as he liked if we could have got the staff. We tried several times with foreigners but they never stayed. Those Spaniards who were here when you came before were the last.”
Carolus examined the place carefully. It was obvious that everything personal taping removed—there were no clothes, pictures, papers, books or intimate possessions. Yet the flat could be called furnished.
“Was the television set his or yours?” Carolus asked abruptly.
“I don’t know. We gave it him. He could have taken it away or sold it, I suppose. He only took his personal possessions.”
It was all too consistent, Carolus thought. It conformed exactly with Cuchran’s story—the old man could have spent several days here packing.”
“Was there much rubbish to be burnt when he left?”
“Rubbish? Really, I don’t know. I didn’t clean the place out.”
“No? Who did?”
“The char, I suppose.”
Carolus was looking carefully for something—just one single thing—that had left behind after Mowlett’s departure. He felt there ought to be something. No one is infallible in packing. A piece of Goss china perhaps, souvenir of a day at Eastbourne, a pack of cards used for playing patience when Mowlett was alone here, something to shew that he had been—and gone. The fact that there was nothing seemed rather more than strange.
“The same thought seemed to have occurred to Gaston.”
“Was my uncle and very methodical man?” he asked.
“Not particularly. He knew his job of course.”
“I meant in his own affairs?”
“I knew nothing whatsoever about his own affairs. I did not even know he had a nephew till you arrived today,” said Cuchran huffily.
“But you assumed he had no one?” suggested Carolus.
“I never knew of anyone.”
Gaston look thoughtfully about him.
“I’m glad to have seen where he lived. I felt it was only due to the old boy. But I mean to know a lot more about him.”
In the kitchen there was no sign of Mrs. Flipp but as they passed through Carolus noticed a door which from its position would seem to lead neither to the hall nor to the outside of the house.
“What door is that?” he asked.
Cuchran did not pause. He was making for the hall and perhaps the decanter for it was nearly an hour since he had been fortified.
“Cellar. There’s nothing to see there.”
Carolus remained still.
“Since you’ve been kind enough to ask us to see the house it would be a pity not to look at the cellar.”
“I tell you there’s nothing to see. I’m going to have a drink.”
“I’m sorry to insist,” said Carolus, and waited.
“I am going . . .”
“Yes, of course, by all means. Don’t let us detain you. But do let us have the key before you go.”
Cuchran hesitated. He did not want an open quarrel, evidently, but was resolved not to open the cellar door.
“There’s a lot of valuable wine down there,” he grumbled.
“You don’t think we’re going to drink it, do you?” asked Gaston.
“Mowlett was in charge of it, I take it?”
“I suppose so, in a way.”
“Then I feel we ought to see that,” said Carolus. “In the present ambiguous circumstances, I mean.”
Among all Cuchran’s keys there were two giants, and he selected one of these. He didn’t say he hoped Carolus broke his neck but clearly felt like that. He left Carolus and Gaston and strode off towards his study.
The cellar door swung open without much difficulty. There was electrical light and it was as well there was, for the stairs were precipitous. They were not very much worn but in order to economise space they were made steep and narrow.
“This staircase was only for the butler’s use when it was built in 1870,” said Carolus. “It was positively wrong to shew any consideration for servants then.”
The steps and the cellar floor were noticeably clean, however.
“I should like to spend an hour or two here,” Carolus reflected.
“My goodness, so would I,” said Gaston. “Though most of this must be too old by now. What a shame to let it go like that. There’s a dozen dozen of Crofts 1900 vintage. Must be past it. And look at all this Château Margaux. Shameful.”
“Oh, my God,” said Carolus. “Romanée Conti. This is a crime. Gone to waste.”
“And that brute upstairs swilling whisky with all this under his feet. No wonder your aunt calls him a murderer.”
Slowly, sadly they ascended to floor level.
“I shall having nightmares about that. Nothing’s been laid down since the war. That wonderful wine left to die.” Gaston sounded almost tearful. “What was my uncle doing?”
“He couldn’t do much on his own, I suppose,” Carolus said. “Say a bottle of day. I’ve no doubt he did his best.”
“He was a teetotaller,” said Gaston tragically.
“How do you know?”
Gaston looked a mite confused.
“I seem to have heard so. Perhaps from my father.”
As they crossed the hall Carolus heard his name spoken quietly over the banisters and looked up to see Mrs. Cuchran.
“I want to speak to you,” she said.
“Go on to the study,” Carolus whispered to Gaston. “Keep him talking.”
He joined Mrs. Cuchran on the half-landing. That sudden affectation of a proletarian accent which had startled him when they had parted last time was not noticeable now, but her behaviour was no less eccentric. She looked piercingly at Carolus and said—“Are you to be trusted?”
One of those questions, like the Sally Army’s ‘Are you saved?’ or the public speaker’s ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’
“Trusted with what?” asked Carolus lamely.
“I hope so.”
She looked away from him and said almost in a whisper—“It wasn’t murder. Whatever else it was, it wasn’t murder. You can believe that.”
Carolus prepared his inevitable battery of questions but before he could speak Mrs. Cuchran had turned swiftly and run upstairs.
“Bye-bye!” she called in that idiotic way of hers.
Carolus joined Cuchran and Gaston in the study. He said nothing of his encounter and soon afterwards he and Gaston took leave.
But when they reached his car he saw that a piece of paper have been pushed under the screen wiper. He pulled it away quickly and pocketed it, thinking he might be watched from one of the windows. Some way from the house is stopped and read a message written in clear round handwriting. Come to see me Appledore tomorrow half past four Mrs. Flipp.
Gaston glanced at it.
“I quite envy you,” he said. “I shall be back at work well you here what the mysterious Mrs. Flipp has to tell you. By the way, if you run into any expense while you’re investigating this you must let me meet it. After all, the old boy’s my responsibility. I may even benefit from his Will.”
“This sort of thing is my only hobby,” said Carolus, “and my one extravagance. But if I do come up against anything which needs an outlay I’ll let you know. It could be, in certain circumstances, that I shall have to buy information.”
“You mean you know something already?”
“Not really. But I have the beginnings of a theory and it could be expensive to complete it.”
“You don’t think my uncle is alive?”
“No. Frankly, I don’t.” And with a glance at his companion Carolus asked, “Do you?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said Gaston as they reached Mortboys.
They were greeted rather boisterously by Mrs. Mowlett.
“Well, you two. You have been a time! Lots of mysterious happenings?”
“Several,” said Carolus.
“But have you got any further?”
“We’ve seen the house. We’ve met Mrs. Flipp.”
“Didn’t I hear something about some Spaniards?” asked Freda Mowlett.
“The Spaniards? Oh, they went nearly a year ago. They couldn’t possibly remain in that place.”
“No. I suppose not.”
Gaston began a lament about the wine and soon afterwards the Mowletts decided to leave for London. They thanked Aunt Vicky for entertaining them and hoped she would come to the Capribelle when next she was in town.
When they had driven away, Carolus asked Aunt Vicky what she thought of them.
“I’m sure they’re very nice people,” said Aunt Vicky. “Very up-to-date and smart. But not quite my sort, I think. I found her somewhat exuberant.”
“I’m afraid you’re right. I’ve never discovered what my sort is, but whatever it is, they’re not it.