Death on Romney Marsh
As soon as the door opened a few inches Carolus inserted his foot. He was conscious of the absurdity of the situation which belonged to the sensational fiction of the Nineties, but if he were to complete his mission this action was necessary. When he saw the face that peered at him from the gap made by the slightly open door, he felt even more like a character in melodrama of eighty years ago.
It was a long bony face with sad eyes and belonged to a man in his sixties or early seventies. The eyes watched Carolus intently but shewed no anger or alarm.
“Captain Cuchran in?” asked Carolus.
“He’s not at home.”
“Just tell him I want to see him, will you? Carolus Deene is my name.”
“I said he was not at home.”
“Yes. I heard you. You’re the butler, I suppose? Mowlett, I believe? This is rather a silly conversation, Mowlett, and far from original, because I intend to see Captain Cuchran.”
Carolus was aware that from the interior his words were being overheard.
“Know that little thing by de la Mare? ‘Is there anybody there? said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door.’ You don’t? So apt, Particularly when it talks of ‘a host of phantom listeners that dwelt in the lone house then’. But we could go on chattering all night like this. I expect you’ve got some favourite quotations too. Do tell Captain Cuchran—he’s somewhere quite handy—that I shan’t be leaving till I’ve seen him, because it will save us all so much trouble if you do.”
“Captain Cuchran is not at home,” the old man repeated to a renewal of the howling of the unseen baby.
“You’ll find he has come in by now if you just look behind you, I expect. By Jove, that baby’s got a pair of lungs, hasn’t it? Quite livens up the house. Nothing phantom about that. Cigarette?”
“I must ask you to remove your foot,” said Mowlett in his gloomy voice.
“Oh, come on,” said Carolus smiling. “I’m going to see Captain Cuchran, you know. We’re only wasting time.”
Mowlett seemed to be feeling the cold, for there was an icy wind and the house faced north-east.
“What is your business?”
“Oh, crime. Investigation of crime. But I want to see Captain Cuchran about my aunt, Miss Morrow, and her occupation of Mortboys.”
At this there was sudden movement behind the door, Mowlett seemed to be shoved from somewhere and the baby, which had been hushed for a few moments, broke out yet again. A heavily-built man, somewhat bloated and purple of face, appeared.
“What the devil do you mean by upsetting my household?” he asked loudly.
“What the devil do you mean by upsetting my aunt?”
Cuchran’s anger seemed to boil up like a saucepan of milk, overspill, extinguish the gas of the ring under it, and subside to a soggy calm.
“Is it your custom to force your way into people’s houses?” he asked sourly but with less bluster.
“I can’t remember that it has ever been necessary before. I certainly apologize for it. I really had to see you.”
Cuchran glared at him. He had the watery pale eyes of an alcoholic, or near alcoholic, or perhaps former alcoholic.
“You can come in,” he said.
Carolus noticed that instead of opening the door for him Mowlett left it exactly as it was and disappeared from the hall. He pushed it open for himself and closed it behind him.
For period gloom and Victorian-Gothic ambience the interior of the house excelled what Carolus had seen from the drive. Ferocious mammalia, the spoils of shikari in nineteenth-century India or Livingstonian Africa, glared glassily from the walls and furniture, installed when the house was built, towered threateningly in Spanish mahogany abundance.
“Cosy little place you’ve got here,” said Carolus brightly.” I wonder what John Betjeman would say to it, eh? Probably ‘Boo!’ But we shall never know.”
“Since you are determined to intrude, you’d better come into my study.”
A fire here lit the glass-fronted bookshelves and Turkey carpet. Cuchran made straight for a tantalus, not so much from a sense of hospitality, Carolus thought, but because he was, as they say, dying for a drink.
“Scotch?” he offered sulkily.
Taking colour from his surroundings, Carolus said he would like a chhota peg. They drank standing up.
“About my aunt,” began Carolus.
“Nothing to be done I’m afraid. Development,” returned Cuchran.
“The estate. Block of flats. House several thousand.”
He drew out a blue-print and spread it on the table.
“You don’t mean to say you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of having this drawn? Just to shift aunt? It’s too silly, really.”
Cuchran appeared not to have heard and was demonstrating points.
“Swimming pool,” he said throatily. “Supermarket.”
“Church?” suggested Carolus.
“No. We’ve got our own. Between the estate and Charlton-Lovejoy, the next parish.”
“And who is going to finance this scheme?”
“Too easy. We shall be turning money away. Housing, you see.”
“I don’t see. Nor does anyone else. And if you’re offering this as a reason why my aunt should give up on you’re insulting intelligence. You might as well talk of residential flats on the top of Snowdon.”
“As a matter of fact, I am interested in a scheme . . .”
“You were a bookmaker at one time, I believe?”
“Never mind what I was or am. I want possession of Mortboys.”
“You’re not going to have it. I came to see you this afternoon because in spite of all reports I believed you might be a reasonable man. I admit I have not yet examined the legal side of the thing and I don’t know whether you had even the smallest pretensions to a case. But I tell you this—I’ll fight with every means there is, whatever it costs, to prevent you getting possession. I’ll go back into the past, if necessary . . .”
“What do you mean?”
“I think you know what I mean.”
Cuchran stood blinking at Carolus as though he were trying to think of a retort and couldn’t. They were both silent and both could hear an approaching step in the tiled hall. Suddenly Cuchran went forward fussily.
“My dear, you shouldn’t have come down,” he said. “This gentleman has only come to see me on a small matter of business. Mr. . . . er . . .”
“Mr. Deene, my wife.”
Carolus wondered at Aunt Vicki’s description—mad, raving mad. The woman who stretched out her hand to him looked unusual, but perfectly sane. She was dressed intelligently and if she were not in the last breath of fashion certainly there was nothing outmoded about her appearance. The curious thing, as Aunt Vicki had warned him, was her make-up. That certainly was old-fashioned and grossly exaggerated. Carolus wondered why. Her bone structure and features were good.
“The first thing,” she said, “is for you to to stop glaring at one another. Sit down, both of you. I’ve told Mowlett to bring some tea.”
“Mr. Deene was just going, my dear.”
“I don’t think he was—not until he had said a great deal more then he has. You’re Vicky Morrow’s nephew, I believe?”
“Do you know her?”
“Only by sight and reputation. We know she has a wicked tongue.”
Carolus was on uncertain ground.
“She is certainly rather frank.”
Mowlett entered with the silver tray used in every french-window comedy on the London stage.
“For ten years, ever since our marriage,” went on Mrs. Cuchran (‘if’, as Aunt Vicky said, ‘she is his wife’) “she has persisted in slandering me. She is quite indefatigable in her malice. Do you wonder that my husband wants possession of her house?”
Cuchran was evidently miserable.
“My wife is mistaken,” he said. “It is true that Miss Morrow has persistently slandered us. That is not my reason for giving her a year’s notice to quit Mortboys.”
“No. Development,” said Carolus.
“Zsh’actly,” said Cuchran blearily. The tea was not doing him any good at all.
But in spite of what seemed like a gaffe Mrs. Cuchran shewed no sign of mental instability and Carolus wondered when, and if, this would manifest itself.
A screech came from the hall. The baby was awake again.
“We have Spanish servants,” said Mrs. Cuchran, in explanation. “A young couple. We did not know when we engaged them that they had a child. I understand your aunt has no service problems?”
“She is very well looked after. Are you proposing, by the way, to get rid of all the Churchers?” Carolus asked Cuchran.
He saw that the question was embarrassing.
“I’m not prepared to discuss that,” Cuchran said.
“If only your aunt had dropped this wearisome campaign of hers,” said Mrs. Cuchran, “I am sure we should have felt quite differently about her.”
“It’s not really a campaign. Once she gets something into her head it’s hard to shift it.”
“But such very nasty things. She implies that we are not married and quite openly calls my husband a murderer. How would you like being called a murderer?”
“I’ve no doubt I have been,” admitted Carolus. “I’ve been called everything else.”
He rose to leave, feeling the interview had been not without interest but probably fruitless.
“I just want you to know that I think your claim preposterous and I mean to fight it with all I’ve got. If you want to avoid legal costs you had better drop it now.”
“Can’t do that,” said Cuchran obstinately. “Development.”
Carolus was still waiting for some sign of eccentricity from Mrs Cuchran. When he turned to bid her good-bye he got it. Her normally well-bred behaviour suddenly gave way to a vulgarly flirtatious leer.
“Ta-ta!” she said. “Come again soon.”
It was so startling that he stopped and gazed at her.
“Ever so nice to meet you,” she grinned. “Mind how are you go. Ta-ta!”
But there was yet another surprise. As he crossed the hall a stout young man rushed out and addressed him in Spanish, grabbing his hand and shaking it violently. “Señor, do you speak Spanish?” he asked.
“Oh Señor! God bless you! Maria Teresa, he speaks Spanish! Señor, here we have been in despair. We cannot understand one word or make ourselves understood. We cannot buy anything for the niño. We might as well be in prison. We are lost!”
“It is terrible,” joined in Maria Teresa, jumping the baby about vigorously to stop it squealing. “Pepe has tried to tell the old one what we want but he does not care to listen. We have no one, señor; we are alone, abandoned, deserted, lost!”
“We do not know the way to a town. We cannot find anyone to understand. We do the work—they can tell us that. Oh, yes, they can tell us what to do, clean the floors, the boots . . . imagine, Señor, the boots! I am expected to be a limpiabotas. This is not England, this house. It cannot be England. Where are the people, the gaiety, the swing music? Of the climate we do not complain. We were told to expect that. But are we to spend our lives cleaning boots in the middle of a marsh?”
“What’s the matter with them?” asked Cuchran.
“A little international misunderstanding. They want to be with their own people.”
“None here,” observed Cuchran fatuously.
“They’re very unhappy in this isolated place.”
“What did they expect? Swinging London?”
“Not exactly. But someone who speaks their own language. They would like to do some shopping, I think, for the child.”
“Damn the child,” said Cuchran. “It’s the noisiest I’ve ever known.”
“Will you not take us with you? Now? This minute?” pleaded the Spaniard. “This is not to be endured, this place. We shall die and no one will know we are here. There are ghosts, too.”
They both nodded.
“And the old one behaves very strangely. He is supposed to be a mayordomo. He is more like the owner. He has his own apartments. As for the owner, he drinks. God, how he drinks. Señor, it is a house of hell. When I saw you coming I knew I could speak to you. You must take us away!”
“I can’t do that,” said Carolus. “But I will find someone—the nearest Spanish Consul, or someone who speaks your language.”
“But how will he reach us? Everything is locked. Nothing. No one. We are abandoned.”
“I reached you, didn’t I? I will find someone to take care of you.”
“You give your word, Señor?”
“Yes. I give you my word. Cheer up, Maria Theresa. Cheer up, Pepe. You will be all right.”
They broke into thanks.
“Sorry about that,” said Cuchran. “Blasted cheek, addressing a guest like that.”
“Am I a guest?”
“Well you know what I mean.”
“We shall certainly meet again,” predicted Carolus. “That is, if you go on with this ridiculous business. By the way, do you employ a man called Withers?”
This went home. Cuchra turned as purple as on his first appearance.
“What business have you to ask me questions about my staff? It’s damnable impertinence. You can get out of my house. I’m . . . this . . .”
Pepe was courteously opening the front door and Carolus, with an equable smile to Cuchran and a reassuring look to the Spaniard, made his accent and started briskly down the drive.
He climbed the iron gates with a little less agility and realised that he was feeling tired. Really, this period stuff. ‘Out into the cold you go!’ It was too much.
He was relieved, when he put the car into the lean-to garage at Mortboys to see Dennis, one of the young Churchers, standing near and looking comfortably 1968. He wore something which would be noticeable in Carnaby Street and his hair-do was flagrant.
“Got a right bit of hardware there,” he said with a nod towards the Bentley. “What can you get out of it?”
Carolus, back in the age of speed, discussed the car’s potentialities. He was relieved that young Churcher had an MG and did not ask casually for a loan of the Bentley.