Death on Romney Marsh
“There has always been something sinister about the house,” said Miss Morrow.
“Yes. The architecture,” replied her nephew imperturbably. His name was Deene.
“You know perfectly well I’m not referring to the architecture,” said the old lady decisively.
“Then what?” asked Carolus Deene. He adored his small aunt, with her downrightness.
But she could be alarming and scandalous, too.
“Murder,” she snapped.
“My dear Aunt Vicky, I cannot understand how you can have got so far in life without facing an action for slander. For twenty years you have been repeating this monstrous accusation against the man whose innocence has being established in court. Now you’re surprised when he wants to turn you out of the house you rent from him.”
“It was murder. I don’t care what anyone says. You’ve never heard half the story.”
So you send for me to try persuasion with a slandered man. I’m to go and see him and tell him you want to keep your home. I’m to drive up to his house, which you say is ‘sinister’ calmly face this Captain Cuchran, and say ‘please let my aunt keep Mortboys’.”
“You’re to say nothing of the sort. You’re to tell him that on no account will I be turned out of my home (to which, by the way he has absolutely no right) by a blackguard who should have been hanged twenty years ago.”
“Is that all?” asked Carolus.
Miss Morrow smiled.
You’ll know how to handle him. You always get your own way with people, even as a small boy. This man mustn’t be allowed to turn me out. There must be some protection in law.
“There was,” said Carolus. “I don’t know how the law stands now. I see Cuchran’s lawyers speak of ‘development’. It seems that almost anything can be done nowadays in the name of development. How long have you been here?”
“Over fifty years. I came here in 1917, just after Raymond was killed. Everyone said I was mad to bury myself here, but I wanted to live alone.”
Carolus knew the story, how Aunt Vicky had been engaged to a boy scarcely older than herself who had been sent back to the trenches and killed after one brief leave with her, during which they had neglected to get married, how his child had been stillborn and how Vicky had found this house on the Romney marshes and lived here ever since, growing with the years somewhat irresponsible in her speech but keeping a shrewdness of her own. She was a bright, talkative old lady, in some ways well-informed and down-to-earth, but often indiscreet. She was not what is called ‘outspoken’ by which is often meant just rude; her opinions were sincere but too freely given. Carolus admired her elegance. One could never have guessed she had lived for half a century in a remote agricultural area for she had never, as her relatives said, ‘let herself go’, and aunt Vicky’s annual month in town during which she stayed at Brown’s Hotel, was an institution.
But her home was remote, and when she had first gone to live there the region must have been forbidding and inaccessible, its very names suggesting Swinburne’s ‘mile on mile on mile of desolation’, names like Dymchurch and Dungeness. For many years deserted, but for sheep-farmers and smugglers, the Romney marshes cover even today some of the loneliest country in southern England. Aunt Vicky’s little house stood among half a dozen cottages on the Shirley Cross estate but it was, as she said, beyond the sound of church bells and the nearest village was three miles away.
Yet she had never been without domestic help, for the families of tenant farmers and farm workers who lived in the cottages near hers had by some mysterious compulsion look after her when she first arrived, and in spite of their recent prosperity had continued to do so. Old Connie Churcher, a crone born in the year of the Great Exhibition, had been her first daily and it was Connie’s great-grandson’s wife Pam who had popped in to get breakfast for Aunt Vicky and Carolus that morning, though she had come in her Mini car and worn a Persian lamb coat. This was the kind of relationship which could exist in that part of the world. So that when people who proclaim themselves willing to pay ‘anything’ for help in running their homes spoke of the near-impossibility of finding it, Aunt Vicky assumed an infuriating expression of innocence and said she really did not know what all the fuss was about. She believed she had increased wages since the First World War but she was just as well looked after. Carolus as her confidant and executor knew privately that she loved the whole tribe of Churchers, had helped them in difficult times and would leave them most of her money. He knew, too, that this was one of the things that exasperated her landlord, Captain Roger Cuchran, who found it impossible to obtain any domestic help from the district and suffered from unintelligible foreign servants who stayed only long enough to satisfy the immigration authorities.
“Are you going to see the fellow?” asked Aunt Vicky, looking sharply at Carolus. “Tell him exactly where he stands?”
“But I don’t know exactly where he stands, Aunt Vicky, and nor do you. We shall have to have advice on that. I don’t mind seeing him if you think it will do any good.”
“Of course it will. As soon as he knows he has to deal with a man he’ll stop all this nonsense. Development! What development can there possibly be here? When I took the house from old Sir Bamfylde it was derelict.”
“Who was he?”
“You know perfectly well. It was before this Cuchran got possession of the estate. I’ll tell you the whole story when you’ve settled this matter.”
“Yes. It’s a terrible story, though. I’ve told you about the murder . . .”
“Many times. And other people, too.”
“That’s only part of it. You’ve seen the house for yourself. It looks like a prison. No one goes near it. But if you want to hear it all, you shall. After you’ve been to see Cuchran.”
“It’s a bargain.”
“The first thing you have to get past is the dog. I’ve never seen it but I hear it’s sort of hound of the Baskervilles. They’ve had to put a letter-box at the park gates.”
“Only one dog?”
“I’ve no doubt there are others. But this one is murderous. Then there’s Mowlett, the butler.”
“Is he murderous?”
“He looks it. But he was there in Sir Bamfylde’s time. The only servant that has stayed on. He’ll try to stop your seeing Cuchran.”
“So what do I do? Throw a sop to Cerberus?”
“I don’t know. Surely you have the ingenuity to get past a man nearly my age who looks like a death’s head? He’s supposed to have attacked the last Vicar with a sword, one of those Sir Bamfylde used in the Crimean War, but I don’t suppose he’ll try anything like that with you. When you once get in to Cuchran you’ll be able to convince him, I’m sure. Only take no notice of the wife–if she is his wife. Mad. Raving mad. Never leaves the house.”
“Then how do you know?”
“People aren’t blind. She’s been seen peering out the windows, covered with paint.”
“Perhaps she was decorating the bedroom. Do-it-yourself.”
“Don’t be obtuse. You know I mean cosmetics. She look a ventriloquist’s dummy. Perhaps that’s what she is for that man Cuchran. She’s his second wife, or passes under the name of it. He murdered his first.”
“Really, Aunt V! Another murder?”
“No. The same one. I told you it happened twenty years ago.”
“Nice little household you’re sending me into. Is there anyone else?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised. Hidden away among all those bedrooms and attics. I told you the place is like a prison. There are some Spanish servants now, I believe.”
“What about outside? No homicidal gardener or schizophrenic chauffeur?”
“There’s some kind of odd man called Withers. Or there was. No one has seen him for years. He used to live in the gardener’s cottage. May still, for all I know. But the place is dreadfully neglected. When are you going to call there?”
“I can’t wait,” said Carolus. “You know, if you were not my mother’s only sister, and such a persuasive old fraud, I’d keep a mile from this looney-bin you describe.”
“Why, Carolus? Because it sounds spooky?”
“No. Because it sounds a fake. It’s a hideous house which has been given a bad name because it looks so awful. You keep saying ‘I’ve been told’, ‘I hear’, ‘I believe’. You know nothing for certain against it, or against Cuchran, or his wife. You’re an old ghoul, and much as I love you I’m not going to be taken in by a mixture of the House of Usher and the abode of the Adams.”
“See for yourself, then.”
“I will. This afternoon.”
“You’re a good boy. I understand you do quite a lot of this kind of thing nowadays. Aren’t you some sort of private detective?”
“No, dear aunt, I am not. I am a senior history master at the Queen’s School, Newminster, and I work extremely hard in that capacity.”
“Then what’s all this I hear about you being mixed up with murder?”
“I should not like to guess what you hear. From what you’ve told me this morning there is almost nothing you don’t hear. As it happens I have a hobby. Surely schoolmaster is entitled to that?”
“Criminology, I suppose. You specialize in murder though. Old Dr. Raglan told me about it. Said you were perpetually discovering corpses. Extremely vulgar, he thought. But you never laid this fellow by the heels when he killed his wife, did you? Or I shouldn’t be threatened with eviction from my house now.”
Carolus, a lean muscular man of medium height, now in his forties, reflected that at the time of the scandal in Shirley Cross he had not yet been released from Service with the Commandos. He had it in common with Miss Morrow that while she had lost her lover in the First World War he had lost his young wife in the Second. With an embarrassingly large income inherited from his parents he had started to teach history after the war in order to occupy himself, but recently his interest in crime had absorbed him more and more.
He kissed his aunt on the forehead.
“Perhaps I’ll make up for it now,” he said. “At least I’ll do what I can to keep you at Mortboys. I can’t imagine you anywhere else.”
“I couldn’t be anywhere else. You know by old Sir Bamfylde’s Will it was to come to me if the estate was split up? I forgot the details but I remember being told at the time.”
“I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about ‘old Sir Bamfylde’ as though we were still back in the days of squirearchy. Was that really his name?”
“Indeed it was. Colonel Sir Bamfylde Silver-Grace, C.V.O., C.M.G. and I don’t know what else. But you’ll hear more about him tonight.”
“I hope to. Unless he was created by Ouida.”
After swallowing a cup of tea that afternoon while Aunt Vicky was resting, Carolus got out his Bentley Continental and set off for Shirley Cross. But from a point several hundred yards from the lodge gates he stopped to contemplate this prospect of house.
Built in the 1870s it resembled as much as anything a haphazard square acre of Earl’s Court, with all its glowing masonry, transported to a site on these flat green levels. In colour a dirty grey its roof was slated and its windows were sheets of black glass, not broken into panes but suggesting that the house itself was staring through sun-glasses. There were some tall elms to flank it and a great deal of plastered ornament round the steps which rose to a pretentious portico. The whole scene was desolate and on this windy afternoon of late January it made one shiver.
This was no place for the traditional ghosts, Restless friars an headless swordsmen of Elizabethan times. It was less than a century old and any ugly scenes which had taken place here were bound up with Victorian or Edwardian crime, old scandals like Tranby Croft. It might be haunted but by spectres in leg-of-mutton sleeves or mutton-chop whiskers. Sherlock Holmes might have been summoned here at the height of his career. What was amazing to Carolus was that it should exist today, Complete with its scandals and whispers, its legends of inhabitants who never saw the light of day and a butler who had been here since the time of ‘old Sir Bamfylde’. Aunt Vicky was ancien régime enough with her Churchers and her annual stay at Brown’s Hotel. This was totally out of accord with the world we all knew.
Carolus drove on and came to a pair of tall cast-iron gates with a lodge beside them. The lodge was evidently uninhabited. More to amuse himself than anything else he sounded his horn, but nothing stirred. He touched it again and wondered whether it were audible from the house. When he examined the gates he found them locked and decided that if he were to reach the front door of the house he would have to walk.
He put the Bentley tidily across the gates, almost touching them with its left flank, then got out from the other side. A special locking device, not proof against a skilled car thief because no device is, but good enough for this situation, was applied. Then with an agility that his contemporaries might have considered undignified, he vaulted over the iron gates and was in the drive. He began the long walk up to the house, undeterred by a very ordinary black-and-tan Alsatian which shewed him its teeth but quickly became bored when he ignored it.
He knew the sensation of being watched from the windows he approached. It is felt by everyone walking towards any house from a distance and was natural enough. But now it was more than that—as though malevolent stares were fixed on is every movement. It did not make him proceed in an affectedly nonchalant way—he approached briskly over the grass-grown drive. At the foot of the stone steps he paused and calmly looked at the windows on each side of the front door. He could see nothing of the interior but if anyone were watching him he would meet a cold and rather insolent stare. Then he began to ascend that ridiculous stairway, delighted that he could reach the top without losing his breath.
There was an electric bell-push and he used it, not holding it too long but with some decision. There was no response. He waited exactly one minute, but when he pushed again he found it was silent; the connection had been broken from within, or perhaps the electricity of the house switched off at the main. There was no knocker on the door but fortunately in the drive he found a large smooth stone. With this he gave six firm knocks. Still there was no reply. Carolus looked at his watch.
“It is now four-twenty,” he said. He knew his words could not be heard and there was no need for them to be. “I shall continue knocking until you open. Like this—I shall knock till you open. Six knocks. We’ll see who grows tired first.”
So he began, allowing ten seconds between each series of knocks.
Yet it seemed to him strange that the first sound he heard from behind that front door was the irrepressible screaming of a baby. It was quite unmistakable and it seemed to burst out afresh with each of his series of knocks.
At 4.27 there was a sound of bolts being withdrawn.