Death on Romney Marsh
It was too late, Carolus considered, to visit the Vicar that evening for he might reasonably point out that Carolus could scarcely see the architectural features of the place after nightfall. So he had to sustain his patience till the following afternoon.
The reputation of the Vicar had reached him. A Cambridge Rugby Football Blue of immense girth and powerful lungs he was known for his jocular manner and high-powered bonhomie, his brief aggressive sermons, his impatience with the fal-lals of life in whatever form they appeared. Like so many of his type he had failed to advance his mental age beyond sixteen years, the time at which he had won his school colours and been awarded the nickname of Jumbo. He was married to a loyal little peahen of a wife who laughed at his jokes and soothed the raw feelings which his boisterousness sometimes left among his parishioners.
She it was who opened the door to Carolus and bade him enter.
“Want to see Jumbo?” she said heartily. “Of course you may. He always says, ‘no destitute child ever refused admission’. Shall I give him a name?”
Carolus, who was wearing spectacles and looking studious for the occasion, said with seeming nervousness, “Please do. But he won’t know it. Deene.”
“Really? They’ll make the old boy jump. I’ll tell him the Dean wants to see him.”
She left Carolus to study the groups of athletes, surmounted by tasselled caps, on the walls. She returned laughing heartily.
“I told him,” she said. “He wants to know if you’ve brought the Chapter with you. Go right in.”
The Vicar rose from behind his writing-table.
“Hullo, hullo!” he shouted. “Delighted to see you. What brings you to this neck of the woods?”
“I’m a schoolmaster,” began Carolus nervously.
“There are worse things to be,” encouraged the Vicar.
“I am also interested in architecture. In fact I am writing a book on the lesser-known private mausoleums of Great Britain.”
“I say! That’s a bit ghoulish, isn’t it? ”
“I find it fascinating.”
“Do they call you the Gloomy Deene, by any chance?”
Carolus had to keep firmly in his mind object of his visit. He longed to dash a little iced water on the Vicar’s ebullience.
“I have come,” continued Carolus primly, “to ask your permission to examine the very interesting specimen in your churchyard.”
“The what? Oh you mean the Sivier-Grace mausoleum. But it’s a horror!”
Carolus put his fingertips together.
“One of the more absorbing aspects of my book,” he explained, “Will be its element of the macabre. Not all mausoleums are admirable architecturally. I want the collection to be comprehensive.”
“But it’s less than a hundred years old!”
“Antiquity is not the only criterion. It happens to be a particularly interesting example of what we might call that Betjemanian period.”
“Now you’re beyond me, I’m afraid,” said the Vicar. “My job’s to read the burial service over them. After that they’re on their own.”
“Oh quite,” said Carolus understandingly. “I take it that you won’t object to my examining the example in your churchyard?”
“Not in the least, as long as you don’t ask me to come with you.”
“You have a key?”
“Oh, a key? You want to go inside the thing? I really don’t know about that. It’s a private family mausoleum. Why don’t you ask Captain Cuchran?”
“To tell you the truth I intended to, rather than trouble you who must be a busy man.”
Mr. Romper glanced at the papers on his table.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said modestly. “I was just knocking out the old sermon for tomorrow. But why didn’t you ask Cuchran?”
“I found it impossible to approach him.”
The Vicar laughed heartily.
“You did, eh? You’re not the first. I find it impossible myself to approach him. Especially when I want a subscription to something. He’s our local mystery man. I don’t know what to say about his morgue. He might cut up rough.”
“I should, of course, make an acknowledgement to you in the preface of my book,” said Carolus.
“Oh, that wouldn’t influence me one way or the other. I haven’t the slightest interest in anything of that sort. Means nothing to me. Far too busy for it.”
“Perhaps you would prefer that I shouldn’t mention it?”
“Oh, you can put it in,” said Mr. Romper. “J. Daubeny Romper. Daubeny without an apostrophe. M.A. not B.A. St. Catharine’s College, not St. Catherine’s college. Cambridge NOT Oxford. The nickname should be between Daubeny and the surname. There’s no objection to it going in. I must tell my wife about it. She’ll be amused to hear we’re being named in a work on tombs.”
“Mausoleums,” corrected Carolus. “You’ll let me have the key, then?”
“Old Cuchran will be hopping mad if he hears,” said Mr. Romper gleefully. “But he never comes to church, so what? ”
“What, indeed?” Carolus couldn’t resist answering.
“The question is, where have I put it? I’ll ask the wife.” He went to the door. “I say, Spud!” he called.
“Oo hoo!” she responded from afar.
“Do you know where the key of the mausoleum is?”
“The what?” she asked from close at hand.
“That huge key. Of the Sivier-Grace mausoleum.”
“I don’t,” she said materialising. “Unless it’s in the top drawer of your desk. Whatever do you want that for?”
“Not me, dear. Mr. Deene. He’s an archæologist.”
“Architect if anything,” Carolus explained.
“He wants to take a butcher’s at the morgue.”
“You’ll catch it from Cuchran,” Mrs. Romper warned.
“So what? He has never put his foot inside the church.”
“I suppose not. Wait a minute and I’ll see if it’s there.”
It was and Carolus prepared to leave triumphantly.
“Cup of char?” suggested Spud.
Carolus, who felt that during the last weeks he had drunk enough tea in the cause of truth to last him a lifetime, declined.
“When will you return the key?” asked Mr. Romper.
“Fine. Take care of the thing. It weighs a ton.”
Out of sight of the vicarage, Carolus pulled the car into the side of the road and examined the object he had just acquired, a mighty carefully wrought key, the key he reflected, not only of the Sivier-Grace family mausoleum but of the whole mystery in which he had become involved. To gain possession of it had meant an arduous and expensive treasure hunt and he was resolved that nothing should prevent him using it now.
He set about making certain preparations for what he intended to do that evening. He had brought with him from Newminster a powerful electric torch which would stand or be hung by its handle to light a fair-sized room, and another as spare in case this should fail him. Then he had a bag of tools sufficient to him a long sentence for ‘carrying house-breaking implements’. He carried oil for the lock but did not anticipate that he would need it. Finally he carried a heavy cosh and a revolver. Altogether he was a fine subject for arrest on suspicion.
The mausoleum, he had noticed on previous occasions, was in full view of the road and he would not approach it till after dark. He could only guess how much was known of his movements but he knew that, as Cuchran had said, it was in the interest of more than one that he should be out of this affair. His car had probably been observed in the neighbourhood today but he would have to take the risk of driving it to the church for he could not walk there laden with evidence of his intentions. Unless . . . Why not? He would ask Dennis Churcher to drop him off and pick him up later. He would not be involving anyone in danger either from the police or the forces against him.
Dennis agreed without a lot of questions which at this time would have been unanswerable, asking only that he should be the first to hear ‘the conclusion of the whole matter’.
The church, midway between Shirley Cross and the village, stood among trees and a rise of ground. It was rather neglected, for Mr. Romper’s dislike of fal-lals expended to such harmless ornaments as flowers on the altar, church furnishings from Mowbrays or even much work expended on the churchyard. Services were Spartan and soon over, and there was a smell of damp and the fustiness of long-dead congregations in the building, while ancient gravestones tottered in the churchyard or rotted away unheeded if they were of wood.
The night was moonless, which was good, But windy, which was unfortunate because it might be difficult at any time to hear approaching footsteps. But at eleven-thirty, late enough to give time to the last home-goer from the pub to be in bed, Carolus set out from the Churchers’ farm having run his own car into an out-house. He sat beside Dennis in the MG.
On the lonely road to the church they met nothing, but in a side-road was a stationary car with the lights off.
“A couple,” said Dennis drily.
“I expect so.”
But Carolus asked him to stop on the far side of the churchyard as briefly as possible while he got out.
Then he entered the churchyard. It was impossible to be sure that no one was waiting there for the taller trees swayed and shouted in the wind and there seemed to be movement everywhere.
There was something eerie about a churchyard—no denying it, and the writers of scare fiction of other days, authors of stories which pictured terrified villagers seeing horrors among the tombstones, had an easy task. Tonight any threat would come from very flesh-and-blood enemies, but the atmosphere, the feeling that he might be under observation, tested his courage.
He found his way to the mausoleum not without difficulty and brought out his key. Surely if he were to be attacked it would be now, before he had made whatever discovery awaited him. By an effort of will he stood motionless for a moment, trying to catch any sound above the wind. He could hear nothing and even though his eyes were growing used to the darkness he could see nothing. He put the key in the lock and found that to his great relief it turned quite easily.
The door was immense, much heavier than if the mausoleum have been built in mediæval times for Victorian carpenters and builders prided themselves on solid construction. It took all his strength to pull it open. It was so thick and ironbound, in fact, that there was no keyhole on the inside.
As well, perhaps. No danger that threatened him seemed worse then incarceration in this small dark place with its stench of decomposition. Moreover it would be dangerous to close himself in, perhaps without sufficient air. A light might be seen by watchers but he would have to chance that. He could only get to work as quickly as possible. Nor would he leave the door half-closed to shield the light. After all there was another key to the mausoleum. If there were an attempt to close it he could prevent it now, but if it had only a few inches to go someone might approach and slam it before he could prevent it.
The coffins were ranged on one of the two shelves which ran the length of the mausoleum. The first Sivier-Grace to build this and be buried here had evidently meant to leave space for several generations. They were labelled with brass plates. He went to the last but one to rub a plate into legibility and found as he expected that it read ‘Robin Sivier-Grace 1911–1948’.
‘Miss Robin’s coffin’, Mowlett had written in his message. This was it and Carolus got out his tools and went to work on it by the steady light of his torch.
He worked as fast as he could, but broke off twice to go to the door and stare into the night and listen, but wind and darkness defeated him. Once he thought he heard the engine of a car on the road by the churchyard, but he saw no lights and continued his work.
“But someone had been before him he believed. The rusted screws came out too easily to have remained undisturbed since 1948. He had his own explanation for this but he was certain of nothing—not even that he would find the solution to all his problems, as Mowlett had promised, when he eventually lifted the lid.
At last he did so and picking up his light shone it full into the coffin.
What he saw was a corpse probably placed there some months ago but recognisable as that of Mowlett.