Death on Romney Marsh
On the following morning Aunt Vicky received a telephone call from Cuchran’s solicitors asking her to consider their letter as abrogated.
“Captain Cuchran has decided not to proceed with his plans for development at present. We shall be writing to confirm this but we’re instructed to let you know by telephone to avoid any inconvenience to yourself.”
“Oh, there was no inconvenience,” said Aunt Vicky.
“I didn’t take the slightest notice of the matter. But thank you for informing me.”
To Carolus she said—“I am grateful to you. Your visit worked like magic.”
“I have a feeling,” Carolus said, “that we owe this to Withers.”
“To Withers? What on earth do you mean?”
“I asked a question about him and it was the only thing that seemed to have any effect on Cuchran. That stirred him up, though. I don’t think he wants these questions asked about Withers.”
“You mean, he has murdered him too?”
“Aunt Vicky. Please. What will Mrs. Churcher think of you?”
Pam Churcher, who was laying lunch at that moment, smiled broadly.
“It’s all right, Mr. Deene. We’re used to it. Besides, it wouldn’t surprise me for a moment.”
“You’ve been corrupted by this household,” Carolus told her. “All I can say is, Aunt Vicky, you’d better justify all this.”
“Up to the hilt,” said Aunt Vicky. “As soon as I’ve had my rest and a cup of tea I’ll tell you the story.”
She kept her word. It was a wet and windy afternoon and there was no temptation to go out. Carolus removed the tea-tray but did not switch on the lights as Aunt Vicky preferred the firelight.
“I don’t know when Jenny met the fellow exactly. He was in officer’s uniform.” She said this as though Cuchran was masquerading. “It was soon after Dunkirk. No one knew who anyone was.”
“What exactly do you mean by that?”
“You know perfectly well, dear. Don’t make me explain or I shall sound snobbish, though all I meant was . . . well, Cuchran wasn’t the kind of person . . . oh, hell, Carolus, he was a cad. I saw it at once.”
“You were prejudiced. You are a snob, Aunt Vicky.”
She seemed to consider this.
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t that Cuchran came from Croydon . . .”
“I should hope not.”
“Or that he had been a bookmaker’s clerk before the war. Or that he wore a diamond ring. It was that there was something false and shifty about him. He was trying to be something he wasn’t.”
“Do you blame him, if you didn’t like what he was?”
“You deliberately misunderstand me. I am not talking about ambition. He was pretentious. That’s the word. A pretentious fellow.”
“That’s more like it. Pretentiousness is odious, I agree.”
“He spoke carefully. He had cultivated his voice, I am sure. But I must say he seemed very much in love with Jenny. That was the only genuine thing about him. And she was madly in love with him. There was no denying that. That’s what made it so horrible afterwards.”
“How did ‘old Sir B’ take it?”
“Oh, very well indeed. Far too well. He was a dear old thing but not very intelligent, perhaps. He was delighted with Cuchran. ‘Any relation to Rhino Cuchran of the Guides?’ he asked. ‘My uncle, sir,’ the fellow said without a blush, though I heard afterwards his uncle kept a pub in the Old Kent Road. He was made. Jenny was engaged to Rhino Cuchran’s nephew. They got leave at the same time and were married in the little church on the outskirts of the estate. You must have seen it. It was as much of a wedding as we could make it in wartime.”
“I must warn you that so far my sympathies are entirely with Cuchran. A family which accepted him because he was a nephew of ‘old Rhino Cuchran of the Guides’ deserved everything it got.”
“That was only Sir B. Robin couldn’t bear Cuchran, though she never shewed it, and she wasn’t a snob anyway. She saw through him, just as I did. It was a dreadful business because we were all terribly fond of Jenny. She looked so lovely beside that brute. It divided the Two Graces forever.”
“You mean, they were no longer friends?”
“Oh, they loved each other, of course. But I don’t think there was the old trust and confidence between them. Anyhow, they were divided by circumstances during the war. Then Sir B, who had never had a day’s illness in his life, went down with influenza. At first he tried to work it off, as he had done in the past with little head colds, and went out to saw up some logs. Robin was at home at the time and tried to tell the old silly he should go to bed, but he was an obstinate man. During the night his temperature rose in a frightening way and Pickthorp, our local doctor, came out to see him in the small hours, though he was an old man, too, and ought to have retired from practice. He had brought Jenny into the world . . .”
“It only needed a family doctor who brought people into the world,” said Carolus.
“Be quiet. Two days later Sir B died and was gathered to his fathers.”
“What do you mean, ‘gathered to his fathers’?”
“Just what I say. When his grandfather built Shirley Cross he had endowed the church and built a family mausoleum in the churchyard. Sir B’s grandfather, father and mother were buried in it and Sir B joined them. He was buried on VE Day as a matter of fact, which made it rather ironic because he had so wanted to see the Germans beaten.”
“So we come,” said Carolus after a moment, “to the Will.”
“There were no surprises, except the usual one—the estate was worth less than everyone supposed. Sir B had not been very clever, or very well advised with investments and although he still left what was considered in those days a fortune it was not a great fortune, and of course the death duties were scandalous. There was a round sum—I seem to remember it was ten thousannd pounds for Jenny, providence for the servants, and the residue to Robin. She would be rich and have Shirley Cross, but she wouldn’t be what you consider nowadays a very rich woman.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, my dear, I did not need it. You know your father had left me very comfortably off. It would perhaps have saved a lot of trouble if he had left Mortboys to me, but I don’t think he wanted to split up the estate, and he expected one of the girls would be here long after me. There was something about this house going to me if the estate was sold in my lifetime, I believe, but I never knew the details and did not worry about it at the time. We weren’t used to change in those days and this had always been regarded as my house. He left me a thousand pounds which I expect he thought would be far nicer for me. He was the sort of man who thought women could always do with a little money to spend on ‘finery’, as I’ve no doubt he would have called it.”
“He would,” chuckled Carolus. “And wasn’t he right?”
“I bought a motor-car, as a matter of fact,” said Aunt Vicky. “I had learned to drive from Robin before the war. It was a great blessing to me.”
“Getting dry?” asked Carolus.
“No, but I know what you want. Just help yourself, my dear. I’m coming to the worst part of the story.
“The house remained empty for a time, though Robin kept on Mowlett, who was medically unfit. There had been a lot of evacuees here earlier but they had all gone by now and Mowlett was alone. He did not want to move. I think he was scared at first and now could not bring himself to go anywhere else. But in 1946 Robin came back. I was sorry for her then. Sir B had thought things would go back to the same again, as they had, more or less, after the First World War. He never imagined what it would be like for Robin alone. She asked Cuchran and Jenny to share the place with her but Cuchran refused. Robin would have sold it, but Sir B had made such a point of it staying in the family. I saw a lot of her at that time. She was thirty-five and did not seem likely to marry, though she was still a beautiful creature, I thought. I suppose . . .”
“Mr. Right didn’t come along?” suggested Carolus mischievously.
“Don’t be silly, dear. Anyhow she didn’t, and seemed to care less for a lot of people around her. She came here a good deal, but as I told her she should have been with younger people.
“Meanwhile Jenny had put up the money for Cuchran to start business on his own as a bookmaker. I believe he was quite successful. But they didn’t seem able to settle down anywhere. Of course, houses were difficult to find just after the war and he had to be within reach of London. They stayed in hotels at first, then took a furnished flat at Hastings. Finally, at the beginning of 1948, they bought a house near Ashford and began to get it ready. It was in a rather pretty village and the train service for Cuchran was good. While they were making the last preparations they stayed at Shirley Cross.”
“Then a cruel thing happened. Robin, just like her father, was struck down with influenza.”
“Oh, darling, ‘struck down’?”
“Well, it was like that. She had been here, perfectly fit, the day before and suddenly Jenny ’phoned me to say that she had a temperature of 104 degrees.
“For nearly a week she was . . .”
“Between life and death,” supplied Carolus.
“Her life . . .”
“Hung by a thread.”
“Carolus, dear. Don’t. I was very fond of Robin. Jenny was with her all the time. She told Jenny that she had left everything to her, absolutely. And it was during this week that Cuchran insured his wife’s life for a hundred thousand pounds.”
“A perfectly reasonable thing to do, surely? Influenza is very catching. If Jenny became infected and died before Robin, Cuchran would have been left with nothing at all.”
“I don’t know how you can defend him. To think of that, at a time when Robin was dying.”
“Oh, yes. She died at the end of the week.”
“The man was a bookmaker, accustomed to calculate chances. I don’t suppose you or I would have thought of it, but I don’t see anything criminal in it. It did neither of them any harm.”
“Wait till you hear the rest. Robin died on the Monday. There were three doctors with her because old Pickthorp, perhaps remembering Sir B, had called in another consultant and a specialist. Jenny wanted the funeral over as quickly as possible—she hated all that morbid thing with flowers and announcements in the press—so Robin was buried on the Wednesday.
“I went to the funeral and nearly caught my death of cold. There was an icy wind and the Vicar went on interminably about dust to dust. There’s no heating in that little church and it’s very exposed. Jenny told me she felt awful but she looked all right so I suppose she meant in spirit rather than health. She said she wasn’t going to spend another night in that house and as soon as the funeral was over Cuchran drove her away to Charingden, where their new home was. I thought they were going to spend their first night in it. It was all ready for them, though they had no servants.
“I said good-bye to her and try to cheer her up, but she loved Robin and was absolutely heartbroken. I felt pretty bad myself. So she said good-bye outside the churchyard and that was the last I ever saw of her, poor child. She was being driven away to her death.”
Aunt Vicki fell into a silence which Carolus did not break. After a moment she looked more cheerful as she returned to the present.
“There’s only something cold this evening,” she said. “We can have it when we like. Shall I go on, or tell you the rest later?
“Do go on, Aunt Vicky, if you’re not too tired.”
“Tired, not in the least. I’ve had my rest this afternoon. But I think I’d like a dry sherry, dear. You have to open a bottle.”
Carolus did so and watched the old lady sip it appreciatively.
“What did they do when they drove away together?”
“I’ll tell you what Cuchran said they did. That’s all anyone knows. He says they drove to Charingden and went to their new house. No one saw them, of course, but various passers-by claimed to have seen lights in the windows that evening for the first time during the year in which the house had been empty. They merely thought it was ‘the new people’ moving in. Then, according to Cuchran, he left Jenny and drove to York.”
“To York? He sounds like Dick Turpin.”
“His story was that he was due in York for the races next day. Jenny did not tell him she was feeling ill, he said, and there was everything in the house for her. He decided to drive all night to reach York in plenty of time. It’s a likely story, isn’t it?”
“But was he at York races next day?”
“Apparently, yes. In fact there can be no doubt of that. Scores of witnesses. But what I want to know was—what had he done first? Before leaving Charingden?”
“And don’t you know?”
“Of course I do. He had murdered his wife.
“On the morning after the lights were seen in their windows people from the village called—tradesmen and so on. There was no reply and no sign of life. They concluded that ‘the new people‘ had come again to leave something, or make further preparations, as they had been doing fairly often in the last weeks. They thought very little of it. Not that it would have been of much use. She was already dead, poor child.
“On the third day, according to his story, Cuchran returned and found his wife dead. She was in bed in pyjamas. He made tremendous scenes. Pretended to be heartbroken. There was no end of fuss about it. The body was removed to the mortuary for a post-mortem. There was an inquest, of course. The circumstances were so suspicious that there had to be.”
“And what was the verdict?”
Aunt Vicky looked disgusted.
“Death from natural causes. She had caught influenza from her sister and it was delayed in its action. She had died on the night he left her there—if he left her there alive.”
“But Aunt Vicky, what else could it have been? A post-mortem’s not a casual thing, you know. A minute examination. If there had been any violence or poison they would have found evidence of it. If they found she died of influenza or the effects of influenza, she did, and that’s all there is to it.”
“You’ll never convince me of that. With all that insurance money? It’s incredible.”
“If there had been the smallest doubt the insurance company would have raised it.”
“Oh, I don’t say he wasn’t clever. He found some devilish way to do away with her which looked natural enough. But he murdered her all right. No doubt about it.”