Death on Romney Marsh
“Is that really all you have to base these charges on?” Carolus asked.
“Isn’t it enough? People don’t drop dead of influenza. If there was the slightest truth in the story she would have felt ill and gone to the telephone, which was working. There would have been some signs of it in the house. But there she was, in bed with nothing in the room disturbed. She had taken a couple of aspirin tablets—two were missing from a new bottle beside her. That was all.”
“She could have died in her sleep. Did they bring the body back here?”
“After the autopsy, it came over in a hearse from the mortuary. So we had two funerals within ten days. And Cuchran got everything, the Shirley Cross estate, what was left Sir B’s investments . . .”
“Very much depleted by death duties.”
“And the hundred thousand pounds. From being a bookmaker’s clerk before the war he became a rich man, and the owner of a large estate.”
“And a widower. You forget that. You said he loved his wife.”
“He always seemed to. No one would speak to him, though. They all knew he had done it. You’ve seen for yourself what the place is like. It has not done him much good.”
“Yet he married again. His second wife must know the story, surely?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never set eyes on her. I’m told she’s been dreadfully vulgar creature. Not an aitch to her name.”
“I shouldn’t say that,” said Carolus. “She seems able to behave in a very civilised way when she likes. Somewhat eccentric, I admit. Did Cuchran never have any friends?”
“At first it was a scandal. He had no sooner gone to Shirley Cross than he filled it with repulsive people of his own sort. Racing touts, I suppose, people of that kind. Large cars tearing up to the house. Noisy parties. Terrible. But all that came to a stop about ten years ago. I suppose he had gone through most of the money or gambled it away. The kind of people he entertained would be the first to leave a sinking ship and we saw no more of them.”
“Did this happen suddenly?”
“I suppose it did. The whole thing was so painful to me I couldn’t bear to think of it. When I remember those two angels . . . and then this, it’s too awful.”
“You say about ten years ago?”
“A little more. It was 1958. I remember that year—a great deal happened in these parts. I had a fall, for one thing . . .”
“So late in life, Aunt Vicky?”
“If you make another remark like that I shan’t tell you any more. I mean my leg. I fell downstairs. On New Year’s Day. I was in hospital two months.”
“I came to see you.”
“Yes, I know you did, dear. It was a frightful bore and at first I thought I should be a cripple for life. So I should have been only I flew down to Lourdes and was right in a jiffy, of course Dr. Lipmann had just come here then—such a brilliant young man. Old Pickthorp had died in the previous November.”
“What did Dr. Lippmann say about your going to Lourdes?”
“He was very intelligent about it. ‘If you think it will do any good,’ he told me, ‘it probably will.’ So off I popped and was back in a week without even a limp. That was in March.
“When I came back I heard that Cuchran was living with this woman.”
“You didn’t deserve a miraculous cure. You are lacking in charity. You mean, he had married again.”
“Who’s to know? He gave out that he was going abroad for some time and when he returned she was with him. That is, we heard she was with him. He arrived at night, and from that day to this one has set eyes on her.”
“Rubbish. The servants must have. You told me she had been seen at the window. I’ve seen her anyway.”
“I meant no one in the sense one uses the expression.”
“One of the African Prime Ministers was a laboratory assistant as a young man, before the wind of change. He recalls in his memoirs how an Englishwoman came in, looking for one of the European staff and said ‘Is no one here?’ You mean in that sense?”
“Carolus, you’re being very tiring. It was that one or two people called and were told she was not at home.”
“You mean, she keeps herself to herself?”
“She has to, married to that man.”
“Surely her kind neighbours have discovered something about?”
“Oh, there are stories, of course. He is said to have found her in Marseilles. Or was it Tangier? She’s supposed to be a White Russian, or something of the sort. We have never heard of anyone of her own visiting her. What kind of woman could Cuchran marry?”
“So that was in March. What else happened that year?”
“It was just at that time that Cuchran’s disreputable friends started falling off.”
“Perhaps she objected to them?”
“I shouldn’t think so, for a moment. After that time there was only Mowlett left and a woman to do the cleaning.”
“Who is she?”
“A Mrs. Flipp. She came out from Appledore by bus every day. A bit simple, I understand, but a good worker. They had to bribe her with the most ridiculous wages, something like a pound a day.”
“Is that extravagant? I shouldn’t have thought so.”
“I suppose nothing is extravagant if you can get someone to help in the house nowadays. This woman has a brute of a husband who knocks her about and takes all her wages to spend on drink.”
“You mean she’s still there?”
“So far as I know. He wouldn’t let her leave because he wants the money. It’s all so squalid.”
“That’s all? In that big house?”
“They only use part of it. They settled down to this extraordinary life and that’s how it’s been ever since.”
“What about Withers?”
“No one knows. He was seen for the last time in that same year. Anything may have happened to him.”
“Or nothing. He probably just left his job and moved away. It can’t have been very encouraging for him. What I don’t understand, my dear Aunt Vicky, is how you get your information. If no one ever goes to the house, and none of its inhabitants ever come out, how do you know what goes on there?”
“You can’t cut yourself off entirely in England,” Aunt Vicky conceded. “Dr. Lipmann has been called in once or twice, and although he is the soul of discretion he must have let slip something or other. Supplies are delivered, always ordered by telephone. There’s a side entrance to the park and you can get to the back door.”
“What about the dog?”
“He’s kept on a chain unless there is someone they particularly want to discourage. Then there are people like plumbers, electricians, telephone repairers who have to be admitted from time to time.”
“And what do they report?”
“Always the same. Cuchran drunk, or half-drunk, Mrs. Cuchran invisible, Mowlett in his own rooms—he has a regular suite I understand—and Mrs. Flipp at work but uncommunicative.”
“What do they do all day?”
“Look at television.”
“Of course! I was forgetting that. It’s the answer, isn’t it?”
“Nothing is the answer. It’s a mystery. But now you have settled this matter of the house for me there is nothing to do but let sleeping dogs lie. If Cuchran does not try to interfere with me I suppose I should put the whole thing out of my mind. After all, it’s twenty years since the worst happened.”
“I think you should, my dear. But . . .” Carolus glanced at her slowly. “If anything interesting should develop perhaps you would like to let me know?”
“I shall. So you think something may come to light, even now?”
“It’s certainly a very odd household,” said Carolus evasively. “As you know I have to return to Newminster tomorrow. I shall always be interested, though.”
But caught up in the events of a new term at the Queen’s School where he was senior history master, Carolus gave little further thought to the household at Shirley Cross. The story had interested him, for seen through Aunt Vicky’s eyes it had a certain macabre charm and an exaggerated emphasis on place and period. But the most he expected to hear by way of development was that Cuchran had died of drink or perhaps that his second wife had left as mysteriously as she had come.
He was conscientious about his job, genuinely anxious to get some sense the past into the heads of his pupils, and easily amused by his headmaster and confrères.
“The first of these, Mr. Gorringer, in spite of his solid appearance and large red ears, the resounding clichés of his speech and his air of supreme self-importance, was always on tenterhooks with Carolus lest he should become involved in some investigation which might bring discredit on the school.
“Ah, my dear Deene” he said when afternoon school was ended on the first day of term as, in gown and mortarboard, he bore down on Carolus in the quadrangle like a black-sailed ship. “A pleasant vacation, I trust?”
“Quite, headmaster,” said Carolus.
Mr. Gorringer was not satisfied.
“No opportunities for the exercise of your favourite hobby, perhaps?”
“I have been staying with my aunt.”
Still Mr. Gorringer’s mind was not at rest.
“Very pleasurable, I make no doubt. But it scarcely sounds like the whirl of events in which you are customarily embroiled. Experience warns me that you may be keeping something from me, my dear Deene. Something in the nature of murder, may I hazard?”
“My aunt did say something about a neighbour of hers killing his wife. But that was twenty years ago.”
Mr. Gorringer sighed.
“It is a sad but undeniable fact that the lapse of time creates no barriers for your avid curiosity. I trust we shall not find you keeping us every half holiday in pursuit of some elusive clue?”
“Most unlikely. My aunt exaggerates. It doesn’t look like murder at all.”
“I trust you’re right. This term promises well, both in sport and study. We, your colleagues and I, like to feel you are with us, in heart as well as presence. Our good friend Hollingbourne was only saying the other day that your very large and ostentatious motor-car and the lavish private income which you so obviously enjoy make it difficult at times for your colleagues to feel at one with you. We have to congratulate him, by the way.”
“Not again?” said Carolus. “That must be half a dozen.”
Mr. Gorringer looked serious.
“Five, I believe. All boys. I thought it behoved me to tell Hollingbourne in the most diplomatic terms of the rule by which the male children of the staff are accepted without payment as pupils can scarcely be stretched to any further concession. Sir Giles, who as you know is the most liberal Chairman of the Governing Board, breathed a hint of this to me the other day. I fear Hollingbourne felt some resentment.”
But Carolus was thinking of other things.
“If anything should come of this case of my aunt’s, headmaster, it would be just your cup of tea.”
Mr. Gorringer halted ominously.
“I should be obliged, Deene, if you would avoid such flippant and boorish colloquialisms when addressing your headmaster, particularly on the topic of these investigations of yours.”
“No, but really,” Carolus continued. “It has period, and old-world what-d’ye-call-it, and a family butler, the lot. I ought to brief you in case we’re lucky.”
Mr. Gorringer raised his hand.
“Although I regretfully admit that on more than one occasion I have allowed myself to be inveigled into lending my presence during your elucidation of some mystery, it is not to be assumed that I countenance such things as a rule. Far from it. Only when the fair name of the Queen’s School, so often in jeopardy through your activities, has seemed in need of my protection have I succumbed. I must ask you not to take advantage of that.”
“Oh, all right,” smiled Carolus. “I won’t tell you about it.”
Mr. Gorringer bent one of his elephantine ears downwards.
“What is the nature of the crime?” he asked conspiratorially.
“It will probably come to nothing. If it’s interesting I’ll tell you.”
Mr. Gorringer nodded.
“Now,” he said, “I must leave you for I see our distinguished music master approaching and I want a word with him. Ah, Tubley . . .”
But Carolus had not yet finished giving an account of himself and his holiday activities, for scarcely less averse to his association with the world of crime was his housekeeper, Mrs. Stick. Her bright shrewd eyes behind her steel-rimmed glasses seemed able to see into his secrets and he lived in the fear that one day she really would make good her threat to leave him if he again ‘got mixed up with one of these nasty murders’.
She brought in his China tea and crumpets and set them by a clear fire.
“I hope Miss Morrow’s quite well?” she asked.
“Splendid, thanks, Mrs. Stick. She asked to be remembered to you.”
“The last time she was over she seemed worried about something, I thought. Was it to do with the landlord, sir?”
“Oh, that’s all been cleared up,” said Carolus cheerfully.
“I’m very glad it has,” said Mrs. Stick. “Because from what I could make out she suspected him of something I shouldn’t like to mention.”
“That’s long ago. She’s very comfortable in her home now. She must have given you the wrong impression.”
“It’s to be hoped so, sir, because if what I thought I understood her to say was true it might mean you getting Mixed Up in Something, and that would never do, not after the last terrible business when we had gangsters all over the house with pistols. I was only saying to Stick, we couldn’t go through that again, could we?”
“No. No. Nothing like that. Miss Morrow is quite herself again.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Stick dubiously. “We can only hope so. I’ve got some kennels de broach it a la lioness for dinner tonight . . .”
Carolus did not often find it difficult to gather from Mrs. Stick’s pronunciation of French dishes at least a notion of what was being prepared, but this was too much for him. At last light dawned.
“Quenelles de Brochet à la Lyonnaise! ” he cried triumphantly.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it, sir? And a jiggot day chasers to follow.”
This was easy
“Gigot des chasseurs. Splendid. You’re a wonder, Mrs. Stick.”
“I do what I can, so long as I’m not Interfered With,” Mrs. Stick returned severely but somewhat ambiguously.
“I’m sure you won’t be,” said Carolus. He was.