Death of Cold, Chapter Fourteen

Death of Cold

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“I was wondering when you’d come to see me,” said Old Hammond, with his best nautical good-humour.
“I’ve kept you till the last,” said Carolus.
Old Hammond smiled, his thin lips over the fringe of white hair showing a splendid set of dentures.
“I thought it was about time you came,” he said.  “As an old seaman, I can probably tell you things that others wouldn’t have noticed.  I’m used to keeping my eyes skinned.  Up in the crow’s nest,” Old Hammond explained jovially.
“I’m sure you are.  May I first of all asked about those who came on the pier that day?”
“Certainly you may, and I’ll tell you.  You mean who came on that we know?  Not the trippers and that.  They came in their hundreds.  You want those who might be mixed up in the matter of Mr. Wirral.  I daresay I shall surprise you when I tell you all I know.”
Old Hammond’s remarks to Carolus were interrupted at intervals as faces appeared in front of his kiosk.  He would accept the coppers and press his gate-lever, but never without a smile, and really without a greeting of a hearty maritime kind.  “There you are, my hearty!”  “On you go, Jack!”  “Nice westerly breeze, Ma’am!”  And so on.  These were called as if by habit and without breaking the thread of his monologue.
“There was Mr. Grool first sneaking on before his usual time to try and get the best place and land a few fish before the Mayor arrived.  There was Slicker, who looked a bit under the weather and stayed on all day.  Mrs. Hammock, regular as clockwork.  There was all the Comusicals, who were rehearsing that morning, and there was Glad.  You know her?  I say she makes Glad the heart of man.  Though how she comes to be the daughter of Rowlands I don’t know.  He gives me a pain in the stomach.
“I went off duty at one,” continued Old Hammond.  “Home for my bit of tack.  In the afternoon there was several I noticed.  Mr. Wirral’s housekeeper for one.”
“Do you know his son by sight?”
“Young Paul?  I should think I do.  Known him since he was a youngster.  A shipmate of mine, you might say.”
“Then you’d have noticed if he came on the pier that afternoon?”
“I should have and did.  He came on about five o’clock.”
“And left?”
“Now that’s the funny thing about this job.  You see people coming on all right because they have to come up and pay their money, but you don’t always notice them going off unless you’re looking out for them.  The exit gate’s over on the starboard side.  That day, but instance, I saw several come on, and never saw them again.  Young Paul among them.”
“You didn’t see anything of him while he was on the pier?”
“No.  I’ve only got my little port-hole here, as you see.  He came aboard at about five.  That’s all I can say.”
“Who else?” asked Carolus.
“Who else?” repeated Old Hammond.  “Now you come to ask, I can’t be sure of anyone.”
“Do you know a man called Tiplock?”
Old Hammond shook his head regretfully.
“You didn’t notice a lady with auburn hair?  Large?  Middle-aged? ”
“No.  Not to say notice.  Might have been any of the holiday-makers.  There was no one else I knew till Dr. Fyrth came to the door of my cabin.”
“Yes?”
“You know about that.  He came here about half-past six and put his head in this door.”  He indicated the door of the kiosk through which Carolus had entered.  “Pleased with himself, he was, as well he might be.  He’d just heard he had a son.  ‘Catch the Mayor when he goes off, will you?’ he said, ‘and give him the news?’  He couldn’t wait to go on deck himself, as he was due up at the nursing-home.  In a rush he was.  But he knew I’d see Mr. Wirral, and left it to me.  Shook hands with me—well, nearly pulled my arm off.  You know what a man’s like when he has just had that news.  Then off he went to see his wife.”
“But you never saw the Mayor leave the pier.  Nor any of the others.  It’s a pity.”
“I don’t miss a lot.  I keep my eyes skinned.  But from here you can’t see everything unless you’re on the lookout for anyone passing, as I was for Mr. Wirral.  That much I’m sure of.  Never left the pier that evening.”
“What do you think happened to him?”
“I haven’t a notion.  But, then, I am an old sailor, not a detective.”
Carolus left the kiosk conscious that he had learnt almost nothing from Old Hammond.
One more call in Oldhaven, he thought, as he went to his car.  It had been indicated by Gladys Rowlands.  She remembered one thing said by the Mayor which Carolus had not missed.  ‘I’ve got to go to the Queen’s for dinner,’ he had told her on that last evening, and to Mrs. Thump he had said that he would be out to dinner.  There was an arrangement made, therefore, before he had left his house that morning.  Carolus drove to the Queen’s.
The manager was a quiet, intelligent man who shewed himself immediately willing to co-operate.
“He certainly did not come here to dinner that night,” he said.  “But whether or not he was expected by one of our guests, I can’t say.  Perhaps you would like to see the books, to know who was staying here?”
“I should” said Carolus.
Without surprise, he found among the signatures of incoming visitors on the day prior to the Mayor’s disappearance a florid piece of handwriting which was easily interpreted as ‘Violette Bonner’.
“Is that what you’re looking for?” asked the manager.
“Yes.  Is she still here?”
“No.  Left the next day.  What a woman!”
Carolus waited.
“On her very first evening she had told my receptionist her whole story.  She was in the chorus of Chu Chin Chow during the First World War.  She moved, if you know what I mean.  She didn’t walk, or trip, or glide, or prance—she moved about the hotel.  She had a bosom like a swan and a rump like a duchess.  Dyed hair, of course—she must have been sixty.  Wore violets—an essential part of the make up.  She had a voice which somehow managed to be contralto even when she was speaking.”
“What brought her to Oldhaven?”
“That was the subject of a good deal of heavy coyness, I gather.  Something on the tapis, she told my receptionist.  ‘I haven’t come here for nothing,’ she said with nods and becks and wreathed smiles.  She was so generously scented that we knew when she stepped out of the lift.”
“She was alone on her first evening?”
“Oh yes; she was alone all the time.  But on the second evening ‘a gentleman’ was to have dined with her.  ‘A real gentleman’, she told the receptionist.  ‘Such as you don’t find nowadays.’ But there was a tragedy.  He did not arrive.”
“Yes,” said Carolus.  “A greater tragedy than you suspected.  The ‘real gentleman’ was probably dead by then.”
“Wirral?”
“I think quite certainly.  Do you know if she went on the pier that afternoon?”
“I don’t.  But I know she left here after lunch.  My head porter might know what time she returned.  I’ll ask him before you leave.”
“Thanks.  Meanwhile I’d like her address.”
“Of course.  I envy you your interview with her.  We get a pretty varied selection here, as you might imagine, but this one left her mark.  A curious mixture of sentimentality and hard-headedness.  And so incredibly of the time.  It was though she had been preserved somewhere unchanged in mind from the woman who was picked as ‘third from the left in the front row’ by men home from Flanders in 1917.  Yet I don’t know.  Perhaps even then she was old-fashioned.  A lady of the town in 1910.  You appreciate her when you see her.  Now let’s find her address.  Oh yes, it would be.  18 Cavendish Hill Gardens, Bayswater.”
Carolus smiled.  The head porter, when he was summoned, remembered the lady well, though she had only spent two nights at the hotel.  She arrived one day, dined alone that evening, made a telephone call and played patience for an hour before going to bed.  ‘A bit dressed up’ he remembered her that night.  She had not appeared till nearly noon next day, when she had popped out before lunch and returned wearing a bunch of Palma violets.  She had gone to the bar—‘gin and pep’ was her drink.
Carolus interrupted to congratulate the porter on the accuracy of this information so long after Violette Bonner’s visit.
“She rather interested us all,” smiled the manager.  “So splendidly typed.”
At lunch, went on the porter, she had told the head waiter that she was expecting a gentleman to dinner—a fact he already knew from the receptionist.  ‘An old friend’, the lady has said with a smile.  She wanted everything just so.  Flowers on the table.  Champagne.  (‘Pop’ she called it.)  And a nice dinner.  After lunch she went out, and returned in a taxi at about seven.  She came down to the lounge at eight, and by now the whole staff knew she was waiting for a friend whom she had referred to rather contradictorily as ‘a perfect gentleman’ and ‘one of the boys’.  They were almost as disappointed as she was when he did not appear.
She had no dinner that night, describing herself as too upset.
“Something must have happened to him,” she told the receptionist.  “He would never have done such a thing otherwise.”
The receptionist tried to make comforting suggestions.  Perhaps he had been called away on business.  Impossible, Miss Bonner said.  No business could prevent in keeping his rendezvous.  Could have been taken ill?  If so, it was serious.  He must be, she implied, almost—or quite—dead, to have failed her.  He was too much of a gentleman to let a little indisposition stand in the way.
“Did she say she had seen him that afternoon?” asked Carolus.
“No, but there had been mysterious suggestions that she knew he would come.  She was quite, quite certain.  It was not until ten o’clock, and after some unsuccessful telephoning, that she went tearfully to bed.”
“And next morning?”
“Next morning she had come down early and again made a telephone call.  She came out of the box looking very upset and went upstairs to pack immediately.  She caught the 11.18 back to London.”
“I wish everyone I have to question was as explicit as you have been,” said Carolus.  “But I suppose it would make my job too easy.”
He drove from the Queen’s to the Old Coastguards’ Cottage to take his leave of Jack and Greta Fyrth, for he had decided to leave Oldhaven next day.  His school term was starting in two days’ time, and there was nothing more for him to do here.
“Giving up, are you?” asked Greta.
“No,” said Carolus.  “I’m not.  But I don’t think this is a case which can be hurried.  I want to think.”
“At school?”
“Well, yes.  I shall go and see Violette Bonner, of course.  Then try to straighten things out in my mind.”
“But you can’t even say how my father died?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“And you’re not going to bother to see Miss Pepys?” put in Jack.
“No.  I’ve seen quite enough people who claim to be the last to have seen the Mayor alive.  And you tell me she would have left the pier at half-past four.”
Greta was obviously more than a little disappointed in him.
“There’s really nothing you can say?”
Carolus was silent for a moment.
“No.  Not really.  There is just the beginning of an idea in my mind, but it’s so vague that I’m not going to give you a hint of it.  I distrust ideas that have no hard facts to back them.  I’ve got your London address.  If anything more concrete occurs to me I’ll let you know.  Meanwhile all I can possibly say is that I haven’t finished.  I’ll go on till . . .”
“Till you’ve explored every avenue?” grinned Jack.
“Exactly.  More exactly than you think, perhaps.”