Death on Romney Marsh
Mr. Gorringer was, in fact, the first to arrive on the following afternoon. He stared with mock incredulity at Carolus’s eye from which the bandages had now been removed, then broke into bass laughter.
“Oh, my dear Deene, if I may say so, what a beauty. I have seldom seen a more variegated black eye.”
“Yes,” said Carolus who was as sensitive as most of us on this subject.
“The delicate coalescence of blue, purple and yellow must be seen to be believed.”
“I’ve seen it,” retorted Carolus shortly.
“I have heard something of how this came to be inflicted. I am impatient to hear all.”
“You shall,” promised Carolus.
Soon the two C.I.D. men were accommodated, Dennis and Aunt Vicky given seats and Carolus was about to begin when there was a flutter of nurses to herald the arrival of Matron. A chair was placed for her in the forefront of the visitors and Carolus commenced.
“These events go back to the year 1911 . . .” he said.
“Mr. Deene,” interrupted one of the C.I.D. men with understandable exasperation. “All we want to know is how you came to be attacked.”
“That is exactly what I am telling you,” said Carolus. “To the year 1911 in which a daughter was born to the wife of Sir Bamfylde Sivier-Grace at Shirley cross. He had as we know expected his wife to produce a boy and determined to use the name he had prepared, Robin. A year later another daughter was born and christened Jenny. I have heard the liveliest accounts of their girl-hood and young womanhood what they are irrelevant to the present enquiry.
“In the year 1930 a butler named Edwin Mowlett was engaged by Sir Bamfylde. He was the son of professional domestics and proficient at his job though by nature lazy. Nine years later, soon after the outbreak of war, the younger daughter, Jenny, invited a young officer she had met in the service for the week-end. This was a certain Captain Cuchran.
“Cuchran was accepted by Sir Bamfylde and soon his engagement to Jenny was announced. He had been a bookmaker’s clerk . . .”
“Tout,” interrupted Aunt Vicky.
“One gathers he was a rather slick young man who continued to use his military title after his release from the Army. But there seems to be no doubt at all, even judging from the accounts of those most critical of him, that he was deeply in love with Jenny and she with him.”
“Pah!” ejaculated Aunt Vicky.
“On V.E. Day Sir Bamfylde’s died. He left a large sum (by the standards of those years) to Jenny, and after certain requests to the staff the residue of his property to Robin. My information is that after death duties had been paid Robin inherited rather more than her sister and the state of Shirley Cross which was considered something of a white elephant. She continued to live in the house with a reduced stuff which included Mowlett, the butler, and a youngish gardener named Withers.
“The Cuchrans meanwhile made no permanent home of their own. Jenny had applied much of her capital to the setting up of Cuchran as a bookmaker. But in the year 1948 they found a house to suit them at Charingden near Ashford and were preparing it when Robin fell seriously ill with influenza, probably with complications. Jenny immediately came here to look after her sister.
“Cuchran now found himself in a precarious position. If Robin died—and influenza was considered by the layman at that time to be frequently fatal—his wife would inherit, but with a second lot of death duties the estate would be scarcely worth having. We may imagine that Jenny’s capital had largely evaporated. He knew her devotion to the family home and guessed that she would want to live there on attenuated capital. So he considered a bold and lucrative scheme. And this is where the story which commentated in an attack on me really begins.”
One of the C.I.D. men groaned.
“Cuchran’s scheme was only feasible in the case of Robin’s death but there is not the least reason to suppose that this was hastened or that she was neglected. On the contrary the sisters were devoted and Jenny did everything she could.
“Cuchran’s scheme was—put simply—to insure his wife’s life for a very large sum then claim it, making one corpse serve for two deaths.”
“Halt! Halt!” said Mr. Gorringer. “This is both complicated and, if I catch the gist of it, grotesque.”
“Let him continue,” said Aunt Vicky. The C.I.D. men said nothing but one yawned.
“Cuchran and Jenny loved one another, but I do not think he found it easy to persuade her. I imagine that she stipulated that everything should be done for her sister and that only if all efforts failed and Robin died would she countenance Cuchran’s suggestion.
“They were very well placed for the scheme. They had been seen briefly at Charingden but no one knew them personally yet and they had not moved into the house. Jenny was a good risk, being strong and healthy, but the very large premium would be understood to cover the possibility of death duties on the estate.
“Robin eventually died, quite naturally of influenza, and her coffin was placed in the family mausoleum. After the service Jenny, who said quite understandably that she did not want to stay in the house, was driven away by Cuchran. She had complained to several people of not feeling well at the funeral, which incidentally had been held as soon after death as possible. The mourners went home, the churchyard was left deserted and was as we know remote from both village and house. After dark that evening Cuchran and Jenny returned with the key of the mausoleum, opened the coffin and removed the body of Robin. They closed the coffin again then drove hell for leather to their new home near Ashford where lights were seen in their windows that night.
“It’s dreadful!” said Aunt Vicky.
The C.I.D. men appeared to have woken up.
“I hope you have some evidence for this, Mr. Deene?” one of them said.
“Evidence? That’s your affair. You will find all the evidence you want, I’ve no doubt. I’m merely telling you what happened. What must have happened.
“Their task that night was a gruesome one. They had to make it appear that the dead woman had gone to bed and died in her sleep. As Cuchran meant to be away for two or three days and return to ‘discover’ his wife had died, the local doctor who knew neither of the sisters by sight would find that ‘Mrs. Cuchran’ had died from the disease which had killed Robin, and these symptoms gave no room for doubt or suspicion—they were of influenza.
“Cuchran’s story would be that he had left his wife in her new home and driven up to York for tomorrow’s racing. Meanwhile he would leave Jenny at some prearranged place and she would disappear while events proceeded at Charingden and Shirley Cross.
“Things went smoothly up to a point. But the way in which ‘Mrs. Cuchran’ was found dead in the house by her returning husband and the very large sum of insurance which had to be paid caused a post-mortem to be ordered. This revealed nothing but death from natural causes and Robin was buried in the mausoleum in a new coffin set beside the empty one which was supposed to contain her remains.”
“I think it’s a most horrible story,” said Aunt Vicky. “Don’t you, Matron?”
“I shall reserve my judgement till the conclusion,” Matron stated.
“There were several ways in which they might have been discovered at this point, the most obvious that someone might recognize either the dead woman or the live one. But the only people who would set eyes on the first would be the doctors and undertakers in the Ashford area and they would naturally accept Cuchran’s identification of his ‘wife’. As for the live Mrs. Cuchran, you will doubtless hear in due course where she was concealed, but it was certainly some place in which it was virtually impossible that she should be seen or recognized. How long she remained there, how often Cuchran would go to her we do not know.
“It must have been a curious existence that they kept up for the next ten years. Cuchran continued his life as a bookmaker and if local rumour is to be trusted surrounded himself with men connected with that calling.”
“Local rumour!” exclaimed Aunt Vicky. “I’ve told you what kind of people they were, flashy, noisy gangsters . . .”
“Yes, dear. I have no doubt they were very unpleasant. All we know is that in 1958 Cuchran suddenly broke off his connection with them, at least outwardly, and arrived at Shirley Cross with a new wife who was, of course, Jenny.”
“Ridiculous!” interrupted Aunt Vicky again. “The woman was a painted, vulgar creature.”
“She had to be. It was a kind of disguise. But even so she could not have returned had it not been for something else that had happened in the spring of that year. Mowlett and Withers discovered the empty coffin of Robin and from it deduced the truth.”
Carolus turned to the C.I.D. men.
“You want evidence. Here is your evidence. You may find it among some parish papers, or if the present vicar was here at the time he may remember how Mowlett and Withers came to their discovery, for they may have used his key. Or he may have asked that some repair should be done at the mausoleum.
“The two behaved in very different ways. Withers wanted nothing to do with the affair and agreed to leave at once with a golden handshake. He may have soothed his conscience with the belief that this was not blackmail. After all, he had some years of service and some may not have been altogether out of proportion to this. Mowlett on the other hand had elected to remain at Shirley Cross in comfort, even some luxury. He no longer felt himself a servant though at times he was prepared, for appearances’ sake, to act like one.”
Mr. Gorringer raised his hand.
“I feel, my dear Deene, that this recital may be over-fatiguing so soon after your dangerous accident. I suggest that you take a few moments’ rest before proceeding. Would it not be wise, Matron?”
Matron was unmoved.
“I am not here in my official capacity,” she announced.
“In that case,” proposed Mr. Gorringer, “you may perhaps turn a blind eye if I venture to offer a little refreshment. It happens that one of my senior pupils has a father whose useful avocation is that of a wine-merchant, and that at Christmas he makes me a present of a number of bottles of Scotch whisky. One of these, with a sufficient supply of soda water, is under the seat of the contraption which transported me here and I will ask this young man to bring.
“Okay, but don’t call my car a contraption.”
“Wait,” said Matron. “I have certain small duties which will mean my absence for a time. On my return there will be no sign of any irregularity. As for the patient—the merest whiff, please.”
It was ten minutes later when, Matron being back in her place, Carolus resumed.
“It may be guessed,” he said, that Cuchran and his wife, formerly a famous beauty, one of the Two Graces, bitterly regretted their crime and the hole-in-corner life it imposed. But it might have been worse. I do not think that Mowlett behaved too outrageously. He was content to eat and sleep and look at television and did not impose his presence too grossly on them. By overpaying Mrs. Flipp they obtained service of a kind.
“But there was no escape for them. Mowlett had taken his own very effective precautions. He had left his Will with a highly reputable firm of solicitors and with it sealed instructions that if ‘anything should happen’ to him the explanation would be found in Miss Robin’s coffin. In other words, on his death, the whole thing would come out. It was therefore to the vital interests of the Cuchrans to keep Mowlett alive.
“So things, as they will, settled down again in this peculiar situation and Shirley Cross got a reputation for being if not a haunted house at least a very strange one. But we get used to a strange reputation in time. The locked gates, the discouragement of callers, the lack of movement ceased to surprise the district and the peculiarities of Shirley Cross were taken for granted.
“But once again the situation was disturbed, this time by the sudden death of Mowlett. Once again the Cuchrans saw ruin and imprisonment ahead of them since nothing could now prevent Mowlett’s message being revealed.”
“How did he die?” asked one of the C.I.D. men.
“I only know that it was very suddenly—Between Mrs. Flipp’s leaving in the afternoon and coming to work next morning.”
“He was murdered,” said Aunt Vicky.
“That is the one thing he wasn’t,” said Carolus with dubious syntax. “For even if Cuchran had been of a homicidal disposition he was bound, for his own sake and his wife’s to keep Mowlett alive as long as possible. I think it may conceivably be found that he fell down those dangerous cellar steps, but I have no real reason for suggesting it. Cuchran was very anxious not to open the cellar and the steps and floor were unnaturally clean. But he may have died of a heart attack. The facts will doubtless emerge.
“It must have been a terrible night for the Cuchrans. If they reported his death the whole truth would come out; if they did not thing you that it must sooner or later be known and they might be accused of murder, apart from everything else. So they plunged deeper into lies and danger. They told Mrs. Flipp that Mowlett had gone away and kept the body locked in his room until they could secretly take it down to the mausoleum at night and put it in Robin’s empty coffin.
“That must have taken considerable courage and resolution for a man in his sixties and a woman approaching them. But they had no remedy. It was, I suppose you would say, a neat way of disposing of the body, meaning that the empty coffin which had been evidence against them so long would have an occupant. ‘The grave’s a fine and private place.’ ”
“It’s all so repugnant!” said Aunt Vicky.
“I must say,” Mr. Gorringer boomed, “that the whole story smacks of the ghoulish and the macabre. If it were not our good Deene who was revealing these things I should say, moreover, that they had an air of the improbable.”
“Ha!” said one of the C.I.D. men.
Once again the Cuchran’s might have settled down to a period comparatively free from preoccupation. Doubtless they would have done so had it not been for my aunt who suspected Cuchran of a double if not a triple murder. In telling me her story of the past she aroused my curiosity and in my amateurish way I started to investigate. Cuchran did everything to discourage me, from bribery to threats, finally importing a couple of thugs from his racecourse days. By now he was in touch with Withers who would also be involved if the truth were known, and after I had discovered Withers and questioned him he ’phoned to Cuchran to send these two to his pub where they would give me, in what I believe is the authentic parlance, a going over. On that occasion with the assistance of my friend, Dennis Churcher, I was able to defend myself. But when Cuchran heard, from a source which I do not intend to mention at present, that I knew about Robin’s coffin he took more serious steps and a highly unpleasant type of gangster was bribed to put me out of action while Cuchran and his wife went abroad. With an assistant this man, whom I saw one night near Shirley Cross, used far more professional methods, as you see, and in the meantime Cuchran and his wife escaped.”
“What will happen to them?” asked Dennis.
“It’s a question for the police. There is a nice selection of possible charges but some of them may not be easy to prove. Extradition may not be possible if they are hiding in certain countries, especially since some of the charges are ten years old. But they may be brought back and tried.”
“Are you then, Deene,” asked Mr. Gorringer indignantly, putting forward the proposition that in all this lurid and rapacious case, this drama of disappearances and body-snatching, there has been no murder ?
“You should be the last person to complain, Headmaster. You are perpetually expostulating (your own world) with me for finding murder where others see none. You should be relieved that I find no evidence of murder where shrewd observers like my aunt have had no doubt of it.”
“It is in fact a mere insurance fraud?”
“Initially I suppose you could call it that, of a highly ingenious and ruthless kind. It has led to a great deal more but nothing of a homicidal nature.”
“There is one thing I would like to know,” asked a C.I.D. man grimly. “How did you become aware of the nature of Mowlett’s posthumous message?”
“I thought you would ask that,” said Carolus. “And I do not not at present intend to answer it. I think I can—as you call it—identify my assailant, or one of them. But on certain other points I must remain dumb. I would point out, however, that a private investigator may sometimes use means which the police are prohibited from using.
“And vice versa”, said Dennis Churcher but his remark was received with stony silence.
The C.I.D. man rose.
“Come on,” he said to his companion. “We’ve got work to do!”
“And how,” agreed Carolus.
It was Matron who spoke the last word.
“All this . . .” she majestically waved aside crimes and policeman, coffins, disappearances and frauds, “must cease. The patient is flushed and excited. Sister! Clear the room, please!”
She removed herself to remote Olympian regions out of the ken of patients and visitors alike.
— THE END —