Death on Romney Marsh, Chapter Seven

Death on Romney Marsh

CHAPTER SEVEN

Mrs. Stick was delighted to know that a famous maître d’hotel was coming to lunch.
“What do you think he’d like?” she asked Carolus.
“Tripe and onions, probably.  Or liver and bacon.  Then a baked jam roll.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do anything like that, sir.  After what he’ss used to.  He’d think we didn’t know any better.”  An almost dreamy look came into Mrs. Stick’s eyes.  “I might do a Jugged Hare, though.  He won’t get that every day, not like I do it.  Sieve it de lever.  With a bomb to follow.”
It was evident when the Mowletts arrived that they regarded the whole occasion as a festive day out and talked brightly of ‘digging up’ Uncle Edwin.
Aunt Vicky watched them critically.
“I don’t know whether you’re right to treat the matter quite so lightly, Mr. Mowlett,” she said.  “My nephew does not share my opinions, but I believe your uncle has been murdered.”
“I say!  Do you really?” said Freda Mowlett.  “That would be a thing, wouldn’t it?”
“If not, where can he be?  You, it appears, are his only relative.  Wouldn’t he have told you if he was going to retire abroad?”
“Not necessarily.  I scarcely knew him.  And what on earth would make anyone want to murder him?”
“He may have known too much,” said Aunt Vicky.
“You do make it sound nasty,” said Freda.  “I think we’re going to find the old boy living down at Brighton.”
“I hope so.  But this is not the first occasion on which we’ve had suspicions.”  She saw Carolus looking at her.  “However, I maybe wrong.  I trust I am.”
Carolus and Gaston drove up to the house after lunch.  This time they found the back entrance and drove into a stable yard.  There was no one in sight and in the still afternoon of threatened snow there was complete silence.  They knocked on the back door.
“I don’t like this,” said Gaston.
“It has an element of the macabre, but also of the ridiculous.”
There was no sound of movement and they knocked again.
Suddenly they became aware of a large pale face behind a dirty window.  They were being watched.
“Must be the daily,” said Carolus.  “Mrs. Flipp.”
He made signs to open the door, but the head was shaken vigorously, though the face remained expressionless.
“Come along!” said Carolus, gesticulating.
The head was shaken again.
“I’ve had all this before—at the front door,” he said aside to Gaston.  “There’s just a chance.  She may have forgotten to lock it.”
He grabbed the handle and turned it.  The door opened without difficulty.  They walked in, watched impassively by Mrs. Flipp.
“Afternoon,” said Carolus, and added tardily—“Mind if we come in?”
Mrs. Flipp remained quite motionless and did not speak.
“Anyone about?” Carolus continued.  “I want to see Mr. Cuchran.”
Mrs. Flipp slowly shook her head.
“Don’t you bother,” said Carolus.  “We’ll find him.”
Mrs. Flipp shewed no signs of ‘bothering’.  She continued to watch.
“Let’s penetrate the inner fastnesses,” said Carolus to Gaston and passing through a green baize door found himself in the entrance hall he remembered from his previous visit.
But this time no one was in sight.  He suddenly raised his voice and shouted “Captain Cuchran!”
It echoed through the gloomy house but there was no response to it.
“You try,” he said to Gaston.
“Hello, there!  This is Gaston Mowlett.  I want to make some inquiries about my uncle!” shouted Gaston lustily.
Cuchran’s appearance was dramatic.  They became aware of him standing in a doorway which they had not heard him open.
“No need to shout,” he said coldly.
Carolus saw that he was sober and this made him a more considerable person.  There was something rather messing about him.  He looked hard at Carolus.
“This is the second time you’ve broken into my house,” he said.
“I know.  It’s getting quite a habit.  May I introduce Mr. Gaston Mowlett, Captain Cuchran.”
“Mowlett?”
“Yes,” said Gaston.  Edwin Mowlett’s nephew.”
Whatever Cuchran felt he kept his features rigid.
“Come in,” he said briefly, and opened the study door.
But he did not offer them a drink.  He turned to Mowlett and said rather startlingly, “How is your uncle?”
“That is what I’ve come to ask you.”
“Me?  Left here three months ago.  Know nothing about him.”
“I’m afraid you must do better than that, Cuchran,” said Carolus.  “Mowlett worked in this house for nearly forty years.  According to local report he scarcely left it during that time.  How can a man approaching seventy have suddenly gone away without a word to anyone?”
“Wanted a change.”
“Are you paying him a pension?”
“No.  Lump sum when he left.”
“How long had you known he intended to go?”
“A month.  Gave a month’s notice.”
“Do you expect us to believe that?”
“Can’t help you any further, I’m afraid.”
“You haven’t helped us at all.  How did he leave the house?”
“I drove him to Dover.  For the night ferry.”
“You mean, this old man of sixty-eight or sixty-nine, who had lived out of the world for nearly forty years, suddenly set out to travel to France by the night ferry?  Had he been abroad before?”
“I believe in my father-in-law’s time.  Can’t be certain.”
“What did he take with him?”
“All his possessions.  Four large suitcases.”
“Where exactly was he going?”
“Wouldn’t say.  Paris first, I believe.”
“Had he booked anything?  Train?  Hotel?”
“Don’t know.  Very secretive man.”
Watching Cuchran closely Carolus asked—“Did you know that Mowlett had made a Will?”
Whether Cuchran were surprised at the existence of a Will or at Carolus awareness of it was impossible to guess.
“Will?  I shouldn’t think so.”
“He had,” said Gaston.  “He wrote and told me so.  Leaving everything to me.”
“We know who the solicitors are,” put in Carolus.
“But he’s still alive,” said Cuchran.
“We hope so.  But the circumstances are curious.  I simply don’t believe that you drawing old man down to catch the night ferry and never saw him again.  To say the least of it, I think you know a great deal more of this than you had said.”
Cuchran began to look dazed and uncomfortable and Gaston followed up.
“Personally.  I see only one thing for it—the police.  We’ll see if they are satisfied with your story.”
“At least they will be able to examine his papers at the solicitors.  That may help us.”
Cuchran appeared to be considering the matter.
“Have a drink,” he said.  “I’ll tell you what I can but there is not much.”  He poured out hastily, swallowed some of his own, and began talking at once.  “It was I who suggested that Mowlett should leave here.  I won’t say retire because he’d done that years before.”
“When did you first put it to him?”
“Oh several times over a period of time.  At first I hinted it then grew more explicit for my wife’s sake.  She was almost working for him, towards the last.  We didn’t mind from the Social point of view.  Both have Left Wing sympathies.  It was the work.  Doesn’t occur to people that senior servants were some of the worst hit when domestic service ended.  They haven’t lifted a finger for years.  Plenty of women to look after them.  I didn’t like to see my wife waiting on Mowlett.
“Difficult to know what to do.  His home as well as mine.  I wanted him to go somewhere where he could be looked after.  If I had known he had a nephew I’d have written to you.  Then I thought my wife would have a nervous breakdown.  Sent for the doctor, new fellow, Lippmann, very clever.  Said she must take things easier, or else.  That was last September.  So I decided to speak to Mowlett firmly.  Explained the position, but he was an obstinate old man.  Couldn’t or wouldn’t see it from my wife’s point of view.  Said he’d lived here all these years and couldn’t be turned adrift, as he called it, now.  I offered to pay him a pension but he said it was not a matter of money, and anyway he had his savings.  I gave up.
“Then suddenly, one day a little over three months ago, he came to me and said he was going.  In a way I was pleased but I felt anxious for the old chap . . .”
“He wasn’t as old as that,” put in Gaston.
“He seemed it, anyway.  I asked him if he had someone to look after him and he said yes, but wouldn’t say who.  Where was he going?  Abroad, was all he’d say.  My wife tried to get more out of him but he abated every question.  Just started packing up his things.”
“Do you know if any letters came for him?” Gaston asked.
“I don’t know.  I doubt it.  I never saw any.”
“What about the telephone?”
“There were no long-distance calls booked for that month.”
Carolus said nothing.  He was watching Cuchran and seemed deep in thought.
“Then one day—I didn’t notice the exact date but it was last October—he came to me and asked if I would drive him down to Dover that very evening.  There was a ferry leaving at ten.  He seemed remarkably calm.  I asked him a lot of questions—was he all right, had he made reservations, had he got somewhere to go?  Yes, yes.  He was impatient and irritable.  ‘All I ask is that you’ll drive me down to the boat.’  I couldn’t refuse.  I found that he had all his suitcases packed.  He used to lock himself in his rooms and he must have been preparing this for weeks.
“He said good-bye to my wife.  Gave her some sort of thanks for all she had done for him.  Then told me he was ready.  I put his bags in my station wagon.”
“How was he dressed?”
“He always wore a bowler hat.  Very conservative in that respect.  He looked like an old-fashioned butler.”
“Yes, the only time I saw him he was like that,” said Gaston.  “Black tie and overcoat.”
“That’s all there is to say,” concluded Cuchran.  “A porter took his bags and off he went.”
“Into the unknown,” said Carolus.
“I beg your pardon?  Yes, I suppose so, if you put it like that.”
“I do.  He has never been heard of again, has he?”
“Not to my knowledge.  But that is no reason to think there’s anything wrong, is it?  In fact, if anything had happened to him abroad we should probably have heard.”
“We don’t know he went abroad,” said Gaston.
“You mean . . .?”
“You didn’t see him on the boat.  He could have changed his mind.  Or perhaps he never meant to go on board.”
Cuchran stared at him.
“I suppose you’re right.  I’ve always imagined him in some pension in the South of France.”
Carolus seemed to wake up.
“Had he a passport?” he asked.
“Must have, I suppose.”
“You never saw it?”
“No.  I don’t think so.  We never went into his rooms.”
“Then there’s the question of Exchange Control.  If he were in France, or somewhere, he could quite easily be traced, I should think.”
“You don’t think he is?”
“No.”
“You don’t think you left on that boat?”
“No.”
Cuchran had a hostile look.
“Well, he’s not here,” he said.  “You can search the house if you like.”
“Thanks,” said Carolus.  “We will presently.  Meanwhile I suggest you tell us what really happened.”
“You think I’m lying?”
“Yes.”
“You think I know where Mowlett is?”
“Yes.  I do.”
“Perhaps you think I bumped him off?”
“I’m not making any such charge.  But I think it’s most unwise of you not to tell us what happened.”
“That is a damned impertinent thing to say, Deene.”
“I know it is.”
“I have told you exactly what happened.”
“You had told us exactly what might have happened, up to a certain point.  But I am going to remind you that this was not the first time someone left here unexpectedly.  There was Withers.”
Cuchran did not turn purple—on the contrary, he looked pale.
“Who said Withers left here unexpectedly?  This is all ridiculous assumption and rumour-mongering.  First a lot of old women tried to suggest there was something questionable about my wife’s death, my first wife’s, then I am held accountable because a gardener did not ask their permission to leave, and now you tell me, in my own house, that I am lying about Mowlett.  I’ve had about enough of this, Deene.”
“Do you know where Withers is?” asked Carolus.
The question cooled him but he looked sly and on his defensive.
“Why should I know the whereabouts of a gardener who left my service ten years ago?”
“But do you?”
“Certainly not!”
“I think I do,” said Carolus quietly.
Cuchran knocked back a stiff whiskey.
“You do?” he said shakily.  Then trying to be bolder—“It’s of no interest to me.”
“Then why does it disturb you so?”
“Disturb me?  Nonsense.  Nothing disturbs me.  It’s just that I don’t want my wife upset by all this tittle-tattle.”
“I’m afraid both of you may be a good deal more upset.  I give you notice, Cuchran, that I intend to find the answers to a number of questions, and I shan’t be put off by the sort of story you have told us this afternoon.”
Cuchran’s only reply was to pour himself out another whiskey.
“And now I think we will take advantage of your invitation to look over the house.”
“You shall,” said Cuchran defiantly.  “I’ll get the keys.”
Gaston waited till the door was shut.
“You know, Deene, you gave it to him pretty strong,” he said.
“I know.  I hate being a bully, whoever it is.  But there seemed to be only one way with Cuchran.”
“Suppose he is telling the truth?”
“He may be—part of it.  But that’s the most difficult kind of liar.  He’s certainly not telling it all.”
“Who is—ever?” asked Gaston sadly.