Death on Romney Marsh
It was nearly a year before Carolus heard any more of the household at Shirley Cross. His aunt in the meantime wrote to him that one of the young Churchers had appeared on television in a talent-spotting programme, and she had narrowly missed a head on smash with a tractor ‘which had no business on the road at all’, but for several months she did not mention her landlord.
Then, just before the school broke up for Christmas, Mrs. Stick informed Carolus that Miss Morrow had ’phoned and seemed upset about something. An hour later Aunt Vicky rang him.
“I just rang you to wish you a happy Christmas,” she said.
“No, you didn’t. You’re bursting to tell me something.”
“Well it is rather extraordinary,” she began at once. “I couldn’t believe it at first but it seems there’s no doubt of it. It finally came out through Mrs. Flipp’s husband, the man at Appledore who drinks. I knew you’d be interested though it proves me right, in a way.”
“What is it? ” shouted Carolus.
“Mowlett. He disappeared three months ago without a clue. Just like Winters. You can’t say there’s not something very very strange now, can you? I always said . . .”
“What do you mean, ‘disappeared’? You mean he left?”
“That’s what Cuchran says, of course. He’s supposed to have retired and gone abroad.”
“Hasn’t he any family? Hasn’t anyone enquired for him?”
“My dear Carolus, how should I know? There must be someone, I suppose. What are you doing for Christmas?”
“Coming to stay with you, if you’ll have me.”
“My dear boy, you know I should love to. The only thing is, Pam Churcher . . . You couldn’t persuade the Sticks to come, I suppose?”
Carolus was conscious of someone entering the room behind him and hurriedly said, “I’ll try. I’ll ring you again.”
Mrs. Stick was busy with a tray.
“I’m thinking of going to my aunt’s for Christmas, Mrs. Stick.”
“There! And I was going to give you a ding-dong a long glaze,” said Mrs. Stick. “With a dozen wheaters to start with.”
“Delicious. Miss Morrow did suggest that possibly you and Stick might care to have Christmas over there.”
“Oh, I couldn’t think of it, sir. We’ve never Been Away for Christmas. Besides I’m not all that sure there isn’t more than meets the eye in your going now. We shouldn’t want to be down if Anything was to Happen. It would never do for me to feel I had nothing to do over the holiday, either, and I’ve made a special boo done de knole. Then I don’t know about Stick’s rheumatism. It’s all down to the marshes where she lives, isn’t it? Mind you, I’m not saying it wouldn’t make a nice change and Stick likes a little variety. It’s ever so kind of Miss Morrow to suggest it and I daresay at another time it would have been different. Only you see where it is.”
“Why don’t you ask Stick what he thinks about it?” suggested Carolus who often found an ally in Stick, invisible and by report but still an ally.
“Oh, it’s no good asking Stick. He’ll say whatever I say.”
Later that evening there was a détente.
“You could have knocked me down with a feather,” Mrs. Stick announced to Carolus. “I told Stick, and what do you think he said? ‘Why not?’ he said. I couldn’t believe my ears. I don’t know what to think, I’m sure.”
“You pack your things, Mrs. Stick, and we’ll leave tomorrow.”
“I shall have to take my battery with me,” said Mrs. Stick.
“Battery de Q sign. And I shall want the kitchen to myself, If you please, sir.”
So on the following evening Aunt Vicky and Carolus sat in their accustomed seats beside the log fire, enjoying Mrs. Sticks coffee.
“I’m glad you’ve come,” said Aunt Vicky. “Things can’t go on like this. It’s like one of those Cases. First Jenny, then Withers and now Mowlett. He’s a sort of Landru.”
“Will you please talk some sense, you old ghoul? How do you know Mowlett’s left?”
“Through Flipp. I told you. It gets back. It seems Mrs. Flipp arrived one morning and found him gone and all his things with him. It gave even her a shock, I gather. But Cuchran was bold as brass about it.”
“Surely some inquiries have been made?”
“There’s no one to make them.”
“Apparently not. At least we never heard of any.”
“Did he never write or receive letters?”
“I never thought of that. But if he did Mrs. Chinlock will know. She’s the postmistress and a mine of information. She knows more about our lives than a practising psychiatrist. You had better see her.”
So a couple of days after Christmas Carolus did so. He found the little post office overheated by an oil stove and smelling of paraffin and stationery. Mrs. Chinlock was a large pale woman, phlegmatic in appearance but for her small bright cunning eyes which were set in her dough-like cheeks like currents in a bun.
There was no one else in the shop and after Carolus had made acquaintance by purchasing some stationery, decided to come to the point and depend on Mrs. Chinlock’s passionate interest in local affairs to encourage her to exchange information on a give-and-take principle.
“I wonder if you could help me at all,” he said. “I’m trying to trace a Mr. Mowlett who was butler for many years at Shirley Cross.”
He saw that the name had roused interest.
“Are you a lawyer?”
“Something of that sort. I am most anxious for any information which will help me to find him.”
“You think he’s alive, then?”
“I don’t know. Did he write or receive any letters?”
Faced with that uncompromising question, Mrs. Chinlock was defensively silent.
“It’s not for me to say,” she murmured at last.
“Of course not. But I hoped perhaps you might help me.”
Not, it was clear, until Carolus had revealed something from his side of the fence.
“Has anything come to light about him? It was funny how we heard he had gone,” Mrs. Chinlock stated.
“I don’t think so. But we hope to discover something, if you happen to remember anything about his correspondence.”
“There wasn’t any. Not to mention.”
“Only the one letter he sent off from here. And one he got back soon after. From Maida Vale.”
It was Carolus’s turn, and he waited submissively.
“Had he any relatives, do you know?” asked Mrs. Chinlock.
“No one has enquired for him yet,” retorted Carolus.
“Because this letter was to someone of the same name. Gaston Mowlett it was addressed to.”
“That would be his brother, perhaps. In Maida Vale, you say?”
Mrs. Chinlock consulted a notebook lying near her.
“116, Elstree Court, Aldenham Road. The writing didn’t look like an old man’s. When the answer came, That was. More foreign, I should say. But you can’t tell, can you?”
“it’s very kind of you to have helped me.”
“I shouldn’t have. Not by regulations.”
A douceur, Carolus wondered? No. Tit-for-tat.
“If you should find out anything . . .” said Mrs. Chinlock.
“I’ll come and see you again,” Carolus promised and escaped.
But once involved he did not want to break off his inquiries and he drove up to London, reaching Aldenham Road, after the usual traffic delays, at about five o’clock.
There was nothing in the least noteworthy about the newly-built block of flats called Elstree Court, still less about 116, the front door of which was identical with every other. Nor was the woman who opened it in any way remarkable in this sort of building in Maida Vale for she was dressy, buxom, wearing too much jewellery, over-scented but amiable.
“Mr. Mowlett. Yes, but however did you come to know his name? He’s never called anything but M’sieur Gaston. What did you want to see him about?”
“Hs relative at Shirley Cross.”
“His relative? Well. I don’t know what he’ll say to that. You’d better come in and tell him yourself.”
Gaston Mowlett resembled his wife in that he was dressy and amiable in manner, a florid self-confident man.
“You are related to a Mr. Mowlett who was butler at Shirley Cross for many years?” Carolus asked.
“He’s my uncle. What’s happened to him?”
“I don’t know. That’s just it. He’s disappeared.”
“Good gracious. He’s been there about forty years, hasn’t he?”
“You’ll excuse me, but how do you come into this?”
“I don’t really. My aunt lives near Shirley Cross and I stay with her. About a year ago the man your uncle worked for tried to turn her out of her house and I went to see him for her. The household struck me as a strange one. There was some story about this man’s wife dying suddenly. And there was a gardener who is supposed to have disappeared. Now your uncle appears to be missing and my curiosity is thoroughly roused.”
Gaston Mowlett smiled.
“So would mine be. I’ve never been down there but it’s the back of beyond, isn’t it? I’ve only seen my uncle once. Before the war, it was, when my father was alive. He was up in London and came to our house. Funny old stick, I thought.”
“I see you don’t follow his profession.”
“Gaston’s the maître d’hôtel at the Capribelle,” said his wife proudly. “You must have heard of Gaston?”
Recognition came to Carolus.
“Of course I have. We’ve met in fact. The night when Dow-Croft had a dispute with your wine waiter over the port. We restored peace between them.”
“I remember,” said Gaston. “I shall have to be getting down there pretty soon, too. But I must hear about the old man. So he’s vanished?”
“I understand you exchanged letters with him some time ago.”
“You know it all. Yes, to my amazement I received a letter from him. I did not keep it but I can tell you the terms of it more or less. He reminded me that I was the only relative he had. There was no gush about this—he did not pretend there was any affection between us. He just stated the fact, then he went on to say that anything he might possess on his death would come to me, as he ‘did not want it to get into the hands of these so-called charitable organisations’. But I should not think it would amount to much. Just his savings, poor old boy.”
“Still he can’t take it with him, can he?” put in his wife.
“Then he went on to say his lawyers were Messrs Neatherd and Ely of Hastbourne Hill.”
“Don’t forget that bit about the other document.” said Mrs. Mowlett.
“Oh yes. He named these solicitors, said his Will would be in there, and another important document to be opened in case of his death. All underlined.”
“That’s interesting. The point seems to be—is he dead?”
“I should think he must be!” said Mrs. Mowlett cheerfully. “A man of that age doesn’t disappear. It isn’t as though there was a woman or anything.”
“He apparently told Cuchran, that’s his employer, that he was going abroad. But nobody knew for some time that he had gone,” Carolus said.
“It is rather extraordinary. After all those years. And there’s been no trace of him?”
“Of course there hasn’t, or you’d have heard,” said Mrs. Mowlett
“What do you advise me to do?” Gastons asked Carolus.
“I suggest you come down to Shirley Cross. I can’t insist on seeing Cuchran if I am alone, but if you are there, with a perfectly legitimate reason to enquire after your uncle, we might get somewhere.”
“Why don’t you, Gas?” Said is wife. “You ought to find out, you know. You read all sorts of cases in the paper.”
“It would have to be after the New Year when we’re not so busy.”
“I always said there was something funny about your uncle.”
“it sounds a queer sort of setup. Were there any other servants?”
“There were some Spaniards but I gather they left long ago. I’m told there’s a daily woman, reputed to be simple. I’ve been to the house, as I told you. They’ll probably refuse to admit us at first,” said Carolus.
“There! What did I say? But they can’t refuse to see Gaston if he comes to enquire, can they?” Mrs. Mowlett asked.
“We’ll get in, all right,” said Carolus. “If we have to break in. This is apparently not the first time that someone has disappeared from the place. There was a gardener named Withers some years ago. Mind you, I’m only repeating what is said locally.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” argued Mrs. Mowlett, twisting her pearls. “You may find it’s a regular Rillington Place. Don’t you think you ought to call the police in, Mr. . . .”
“Deene. I don’t quite see what there is to tell the police at present. Mr. Cuchran may be able to tell us where your uncle has gone. He may be living in retirement somewhere. Though what greater retirement he had than that house I can’t think.”
“That’s what I say,” Mrs. Mowlett, in fact, said. “He must have been comfortable enough or he’d have left years ago. I shouldn’t like to think what you’ll find when you once get in the house.”
“You should meet my aunt,” smiled Carolus appreciatively. “In fact, why don’t you? Couldn’t you both come down? My aunt would be delighted to see. She’s as much intrigued by all this as anyone. You see, she knew the family when your uncle first went there.”
“Some old general, wasn’t it?” Gaston was accustomed to treating titles lightly.
“Colonel Sir Bamfylde Sivier-Grace,” Carolus enunciated. “He died during the war. The present owner married his daughter.”
“Why don’t we, Gas?” said Mrs. Mowlett. “The change would do you good. You never get a chance to take the car out. I could have a nice chat with Mr. Deene’s aunt while you go up and explore the house. It would be ever so exciting, and suppose we find a mystery?”
“All right,” said Gaston. “I’ll arrange it with M. Marmentiere. How about the fifth of January?”
“All right with me,” Carolus agreed. “I can’t tell you how we shall be received, though.”
“You’ll be received all right,” said his wife. “Otherwise you’ll have to get the police in. You want to know what’s happened to your uncle, don’t you? Well then.”
So it was arranged.