Death on Romney Marsh
When he reached home he found Aunt Vicky in state of indignation.
“He actually rang me up,” she said.
“That appalling man.”
Carolus would have liked to pretend he did not know whom she meant but it was too palpable.”
“What did he want?”
“To speak to you. I told him . . .”
“I bet you did.”
“I asked him how he had the impudence to approach me even at the length of the telephone. I said you were out investigating and I hoped it would bring to light enough evidence to convict him for his crimes. I said . . .”
“Yes. I can guess. What did he reply?”
“He . . . but the insolence of it! He asked when you would be in. I said I had no idea and threatened to complain to the telephone company. ‘I’ll ’phone again this evening’ he said. So I slammed down the receiver.”
“Too late, Aunt Vicky.”
Carolus, who had rather anticipated some such move from Cuchran, took care to answer the ’phone himself when it rang just before dinner that evening. A silky-voiced Cuchran told him that he was anxious to see Carolus ‘on a matter of mutual interest’. Would he care to come up to the house?
“If there would be any point in it I shouldn’t mind,” said Carolus. But there wouldn’t. You think you can bribe me off. It’s a waste of time.”
Cuchran sounded curiously unruffled.
“There are good reasons why we should discuss this thing. May I expect you this evening?”
The prospect was chilly and grim. That gloomy house at night with the possibility of real danger was enough to deter anyone. But Carolus felt the old thrill, the love of discovery for its own sake, the chance of further elicitation.
“Still got those two thugs up there?” he asked lightly. ”
“There is no one here except my wife and myself.”
“I wonder why you bother to say that. But I’ll come up. About 9:30?”
Carolus took only two small precautions. He went immediately, not giving Cuchran time to prepare for his coming, and he carried a revolver. He gave no explanation to Aunt Vicky and he left the house without being seen by Mrs. Stick. He was not afraid of Cuchran in his gloomy house but he feared meeting his housekeeper if she knew he would not be in for dinner.
The iron gates were open and there were lights in several windows as he drove up the drive. The front door swung back as he touched the bell and Cuchran, in a velvet smoking jacket looking sober and amicable, asked him to come in. He seemed unperturbed by the arrival of Carolus almost two hours before the arranged time.
Carolus did not seriously anticipate any violence but he took the usual precautions and when he followed Cuchran into the study sat with his back to the wall with the door in sight.
“I have asked you here to make a certain proposal.”
“Why didn’t you make it when I came here last?”
“I hadn’t yet decided.”
“You mean you thought you could scare me off? What is your proposal?”
“Let me ask you a question. What brought you into this affair?”
“I told you when I first saw you. You were trying to evict my aunt from the house she had occupied for more than fifty years. She has lived in Mortboys since 1917. I came to see you about it and found you had no valid reason for what you were doing and this aroused my curiosity. Since then I’ve grown more and more curious.”
“Exactly. It was the matter of your aunt’s house. Now I will make you an offer. In exchange for an undertaking by you to drop this whole inquiry and leave things here in the status quo, I will make over your aunt’s house to her, to be her property absolutely.”
“You can’t be as naïve as that, Cuchran.”
“I haven’t finished yet. I propose, under certain conditions, to give you a complete statement on this whole series of incidents beginning with my first association with the family right down to the disappearance (as you call it) of Mowlett.”
“That if you find this does not make you an accessory after the fact of murder, In other words if you not expected to condone the killing of a human being, you will keep to the conditions I have named—that is your leave this case entirely where it stood.”
“When? Where it stood when, Cuchran? You talk about the status quo. What is the quo? ”
“When you first began to interest yourself in it.”
“It’s not a very intelligent proposal. First of all it puts me in the position of a blackmailer on my aunt’s behalf.”
“Not at all.”
“And the obvious question arises—if you have nothing to hide, why do you make this offer?”
“I did not say I had nothing to hide. I’m saying that I did not kill my first wife.”
Cuchran made an impatient sound.
“Of course not Mowlett,” he said.
“Then who did? Because I simply don’t believe in this picture of Mowlett taking his ease in the South of France.”
“My statement will answer all your questions.”
“I think you’re mad. Or you’ve lived out of the world to long. My aunt would never accept her house in these conditions. And I really don’t think I have any need of your statement. I certainly should never, whatever you might offer, agree to drop this investigation.”
Cuchran was silent.
“Is that irrevocable?” he asked.
“You realize what you are forcing me to do? ”
“What you tried to do yesterday. But it won’t come off.”
“We are talking without witnesses. I must warn you that you seriously underrate me. That sort of incident—of last night, I mean—is not going to happen again. I have other, much more valuable resources to call. One thing you have not troubled to investigate is my own position. I have made you a fair offer. If you refuse it you won’t live a week, Mr. Deene.”
Carolus did not mistake this for bravado.
“I’m afraid you underrate me too,” he said quietly. “It has been your mistake from the first time you saw me. A schoolmaster, you thought, Vicky Morrow’s nephew who plays at cops and robbers. No, Cuchran. ‘Not for cadwallader and all his goats.’ You are a desperate man and that makes you a dangerous one. But I am learning the truth about one of the most interesting set of circumstances I have ever investigated. And that makes me just as determined.”
“You will regret it. What is more if you do find what you’re looking for you will regret that, too. You might remember that.”
“I’ve never regretted doing my small piece for the sake of justice. But we’ve talked enough. My cancer is categorical—no. I will not drop this case.”
Suddenly Carolus stood up.
“Who’s outside the door?” he asked.”
Cuchran did not move.
“If it is anyone,” he said, “it is my wife. She behaves eccentrically at times as I daresay you’ve noticed. You needn’t be alarmed. Nothing threatens you tonight. This was a peace conference. After tonight, unless you change your mind, I shall not be responsible. Good heavens, man, you don’t think I’m alone in this? You don’t think I am the only person in whose interest it is that you should drop your enquiries?”
“I haven’t the smallest idea,” said Carolus steadily. “But I don’t think it was your wife I heard in the hall just now.”
“Jittery, said Cuchran. “There was no one out there. Unless it was one of our ghosts. We have several, which is remarkable in a house less than one hundred years old.”
The change in Cuchran since the time of Carolus’s last visit was extraordinary. Then he had spoken in a surly aggrieved way supported by whisky. Tonight he was talkative and assured. Drugs, obviously. Marijuana, probably.
“Did you say that you and your wife were alone in the house this evening?”
“Yes. If it is anyone else he has come while we have been talking.”
“Or they. But I don’t think you’ll see anything of them. I told you you are safe tonight. I want you to have time to think it over. You may after all be sensible. If you do my offer will hold.”
“Until Saturday?” Carolus asked.”
“Very well. Until Saturday. After that you’re on your own.”
Once again Carolus had the strange nightmare-like sensation of being alone against ruthless and powerful enemies. He had felt this before but never so menacingly as now. There were presences in this house, hostile and perhaps murderous and although for some unaccountable reason he was inclined to believe Cuchran when he said he was ‘safe’ here tonight, he felt no absolute security.
“Do you know a man called Mottimer?” Carolus asked suddenly.
Watching Cuchran closely he saw that the name touched off a nerve.
“Mottimer? Ought I to? In what connection?” asked Cuchran, gaining time.
“No. I don’t think so. I know as few solicitors as possible.”
“Mowlett’s solicitor,” said Carolus.
“Then I’m quite sure I don’t. I never knew that Mowlett had a solicitor until you told me. But we’re not here for you to ask me more questions. We’re here to understand one another. Will you have a drink?”
“No thanks,” said Carolus unexpectedly. He did not suppose there was any old-fashioned scheme to poison or drug him but he did not want to eat or drink in this house.
“Well I’m going to.”
‘On top of all that pot’ Carolus would have liked to say, but kept quiet.
When at last Carolus rose to go, Cuchran moved to the door before him, talking loudly, as if to warn someone outside that they were coming out. The hll was empty and ill-lit and its great mahogany constructions stood round like deserted shrines. Again Carolus had the sense of being watched and hated by beings in the shadows above or about him.
He nodded to Cuchran, stepped out into the night and looked back at the hideous building. Only one window on the first floor shewed a light but it would be from a dark room that he would be watched if anyone were up there.
He drove towards the gates which were still open but a hundred or two yards beyond them he saw a dark figure in the road. A man turned towards him, and his face, with a white scarf under it, came into the headlights. It was the deeply lined, sensual, but not all together brutal face of a man in his thirties. He raised his arm to stop Carolus.
This was a situation which Carolus could deal with. He knew that if he drove on fast he might be forced to run the man down or pull up suddenly. It only needed courage and determination on the man’s part. So he slowed down at once as though he meant to make him a passenger and would stop alongside where he was standing. The device was an old one but it worked perfectly. The man went into the side of the road in order to get into the car and just as Carolus reached him he shot forward and left him standing there. A passenger at this time and in this place was the last thing he wanted.
But he had learned a lesson from this. To remain at Aunt Vicky’s might be asking for trouble for her and the Sticks. He believed he knew the weight of Cuchran’s threats and it was not negligible.
“At breakfast next morning he told his Aunt that he must leave today.
“I haven’t finished with Shirley Cross,” he said, “but I must get back to Newminister before the new term starts.”
“Oh, dear. Must you? I thought you were going to find the truth of this horrid business once and for all. It’s so very disagreeable living next door to unsolved murders.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is. I don’t think it will be for much longer.”
“I so often think of those two lovely girls as I first knew the,” Aunt Vicky smiled sentimentally. “I wish you could have seen them.”
“I wish that, too.”
“We shall never know the truth about that. But Mowlett is another matter. You must find out what happened to Mowlett.”
“I thought you said the term didn’t begin for another ten days?” said Aunt Vicky suspiciously.
“But I have to prepare for it.”
When Mrs. Stick came in he told her they were leaving for Newminister today.
“I shan’t be sorry, sir, what with all this going on up at the house. Stick Feels It too, having nothing to do with his time. He doesn’t like to interfere with anything in the garden. What’s more I don’t rightly know how to treat Mrs. Churcher, though she seems to know her work, I must say. But I’ve never heard of anyone coming to look after anyone in a fur coat with a car at the door. It seems unnatural, somehow.”
“Not really, Mrs. Stick. You must remember we’re anachronisms.”
“You may be, sir, but if you think I want to go flying off to the moon in a spaceship you’re mistaken. No more wouldn’t Stick. The earth’s good enough for us though it has got in a muddle with all these wars and that. What time would you be leaving? ”
“About eleven o’clock if you can manage it.”
“I can manage it, sir, but what about lunch?”
“We’ll get a sandwich on the way.”
Mrs. Stick gave him a severe look but said no more and at eleven, with a good deal of fuss about the baggage being brought out to be stowed in the boot, they prepared to leave.
But first he called on the Churchers and told them enough of the situation to make them anxious about Aunt Vicky.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Pam Churcher. “She’s been wanting her bedroom done up for a long time. Why don’t we suggest it should be done now and meanwhile she could sleep over here.”
“Excellent. I should feel much easier about her.”
“Will it be for long do you think? ”
“No. I hope this week-end will see it through.”
“I’ll suggest it to her then. I can’t answer for her agreeing. You know what she is about having only way. But I expect she’ll come.”