Death of Cold
Carolus Deene was not provoked by Greta Fyrth’s accusation that he was giving up the case because privately he was even more determined than he admitted to her and Jack. It seemed to him that behind all the talk about Wirral, all the regret expressed, all the satisfaction of men like Grool and Tiplock, all the indifference of Wirral’s own son and daughter-in-law, there was here a reality, even a tragedy which he at least could not baulk. The man had been alive and was now dead. He had been very much alive, more vital and full of zest then many much younger men and suddenly, through circumstances which no one but Carolus even tried to explain, he was dead. It was as though the dead man were appealing to him from some measureless void to avenge or justify him.
Carolus had met him once and been with him for no more than half an hour. He could not claim that any strong sympathy had been established in that time, but he had liked Wirral. Most of the things he had heard about him since his death if anything confirmed his opinion that the late Mayor had been a good sort, an honest man, with failings like most of us, but with no evil in his character, no will to harm others, no malice. Carolus thought that the various epitaphs he had heard spoken were much the ones that most of us would inspire if we died suddenly. There was certainly two women who mourned him sincerely: his daughter Greta Fyrth and Gladys Rowlands. There were three men who were probably pleased at his death or who certainly felt no regret for it: his fellow angler Grool, the pier manager Slicker and the bookseller Tiplock. There were others who were mildly sorry: the fortune-teller Mrs. Hammock, the gateman Old Hammond and the housekeeper Mrs. Thump. The rest were indifferent, probably pleased to inherit where there was money for them, tickled by the sensationalism of it or bored by the whole business, and among these must be counted most of his fellow townsmen, his son and daughter-in-law, the police and John Rowlands. There were three people whose reactions Carolus could only guess because he had not get spoken to them: the chauffeur Bridger, the lady from Bayswater, Violette Bonner, and the retired governess Miss Pepys.
There it was—the sort of clamour and contradiction that anyone might leave behind. Regret, indifference, satisfaction, but nowhere except from the Fyrths any real determination to know what had happened that evening, how life came to be extinct in that vigorous body. It was a direct appeal, not only to his curious ability to discover the truth, but also to his chivalry.
But it was baffling. After all these days of inquiries he had learnt nothing which even decided which it had been—murder, suicide or accident. He knew a great deal about Wirral and his movements on the last day, he knew a number of people who had benefited from the man’s death, he knew who had been on the pier at the time when Wirral disappeared. But he could not logically use the word ‘suspect’ because he could not be sure that anyone had caused the man’s death. Suspect of what? Of killing him? Of causing him to kill himself? Of failing to aid him to keep him alive? There was no certainty. There was no probability, even. There were just vague theories, possibilities, contingencies.
There was one thing about this case: there was time. Whatever the truth, it seemed to Carolus, it was not likely to depend on any of those clues which must be found immediately, before they had disappeared for ever. Revelation would not come from some object found, some document left conveniently in a drawer; it would come by inference or information, or by the future actions of someone concerned.
So he was returning for the winter term at the Queen’s School, Newminster, at which he was Senior History Master. He was not, the headmaster considered, a good disciplinarian, but the headmaster’s ideas on discipline, as on other subjects, was somewhat stereotyped. Deene, a slim, dressy, unpedagogic man, who had the disadvantage in his colleagues’ view of a large private income, was only tolerated by the headmaster because he happened to teach extremely well and when he wished could hold his classes enthralled by his expositions of dull episodes in history.
Unfortunately his classes knew of his abiding witness, his passionate interest in crime, and were ready to take advantage of it. A judicious question by a seemingly earnest boy could draw Carolus from the achievements of Pitt or Fox to the far more lively matter of yesterday’s mail robbery or prison break. He could be induced to talk for a whole period on the day’s murder mystery, while the Peninsula War or the Corn Laws were forgotten.
Carolus knew his own weakness and felt, as he drove next day at the main road from Oldhaven on his way back to the school, that his pupils would be, as it were, in wait for him. But they would be unaware that he had concerned himself with the death of Wirral. Even Rupert Priggley, that odiously sophisticated boy in the Senior Fifth, would not know that or be able to question him about it when he ought to be listening to a history lesson.
That was a long stretch of wide, straight road, and Carolus let his Bentley Continental run over it at a quiet eighty miles an hour. Doing so, he passed a small open sports car and glanced aside. The two people in this car interested him, and very slowly he allow this finger of his speedometer to move back till he was doing only fifty and the smaller car was encouraged to come up and triumphantly pass him. Thereafter Carolus kept a few hundred yards behind.
The two continued for five or six miles in this way, then the sports car turned into the open parking space of a famous road house, The Ugly Duckling, and Carolus followed. As he drove in, he was in time to see a man and woman disappear into the building. The woman he had recognised as Lily Wirral.
She could not avoid him. It was mid-day, and when Carolus walked into the room she was already at the bar.
“Hullo,” he said affably.
“Oh, hell! it’s you,” said Lily Wirral. “You’d better have a drink, I suppose. This is Vernon Bridger, Carolus Deene. Was that your Bentley we passed just now?”
“It was,” said Carolus.
“Better get it tuned up a bit. Yes, three large gin-and-French. We’re just trying out this car. Mr. Bridger’s advising me not to buy it. Not fast enough.”
“It seemed all right,” said Carolus indifferently.
“I can’t stand dawdling in a car. I like to get there.”
“You swim like that, too, I’m told.”
“I like swimming.”
“Are you better than Mr. Bridger?” asked Carolus with a smile.
They exchanged glances, but did not seem much embarrassed.
“Mrs. Wirral is faster than I am,” said Bridger, speaking for the first time, in a rather pleasant voice. “I might be able to go on longer. I don’t know.”
Carolus kept his voice steady and his eyes on Lily Wirral as he said: “Who went farther, I wonder, on that evening when your father-in-law disappeared?”
“That evening,” said Lily Wirral a little too quickly and jerkily. “Oh, that evening we weren’t trying to swim far.”
“Still, you went as far as the end of the pier.”
“May have. Why?”
“You were, in fact, out there at the time when Wirral was last seen.”
Lily was pale, but she managed to smile.
“What drears detectives are, she said, “with all this nonsense of times and places.”
Bridger, however, was evidently preparing himself to speak. Carolus knew his semi-inarticulate type and realised that whatever he said would come out with some difficulty.
“Are you trying to make something of it?” he managed at last.
“I am interested,” admitted Carolus. “So was your husband, Mrs. Wirral.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was watching you both from the pier. However, I’m only concerned with the death of your father-in-law, and I’m sure you would have told me if you knew anything which cast light on that.”
“Don’t be too sure,” said Lily Wirral. “I might have thought it was none of your blasted business. I might have found you a dammed nosy snooper.”
“And I might have knocked your block off!” said Bridger furiously.
“We might all have another drink,” Carolus smiled pacifically.
As this was an invitation which Lily Wirral could not refuse, the moment’s heat passed off.
But Carolus would not leave the subject of swimming alone.
“Mrs. Wirral,” he said, “I want to ask you one very blunt question. Why did you lie to me about that evening? You said you went swimming from your beach hut, but it was from one of the bathing huts near the pier. You told Swipely you had lost the key of your own.”
There was a moment’s pause. Then Lily Wirral faced him.
“That was perfectly true,” she said. “I had lost the key. I used our hut two nights before, and I could have sworn I brought the key back to the flat. But although I hunted for hours, I couldn’t find it.”
“Has it turned up since?”
“No. I’ve had to have another one cut.”
“There something else you may as well know. I met Vernon Bridger that night. And I’m not surprised to know that Paul was watching from the pier. Vernon ’phoned me to arrange to meet, and I told him about the key and said we’d meet at the pier huts. I didn’t know Paul was in the flat. The front door closed a minute later and he came into the room. But there was something funny about the way the front door was opened and shut, and I wondered at the time if he had been in his bedroom and heard the whole thing. After what you’ve told me, I think he must have been. Now that’s coming clean for you.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I hear that you’re leaving Oldhaven,” said Lily presently.
“Yes. I’m on my way now.”
“Not given it up, though?”
“More or less. For the moment.”
“Going back to your schoolmaster job?”
“Best thing. Leave other people’s lives alone.”
“I’ve always been quite willing to do that,” said Carolus. “It’s their deaths I find attractive.”
“Bit grim, I should have thought. What’s attractive about poor old Pop Wirral throwing himself off the pier?”
“Did he throw himself off the pier?”
Lily stared at Carolus.
“Well, didn’t he?”
“I don’t know.”
“You needn’t look at me. I didn’t do the siren act and drag him in.”
“Didn’t you? You did not see him at all when you were swimming that evening?”
“Oh, don’t be so dull, Deene. Get back to your schoolboys and Henry the Eighth.”
“What I would far rather know is whether or not he saw you. Now that would be interesting. But as you say, I’ve got some teaching to do. I must be on my way.”
He drove on thinking of the strained, unhappy woman he had left and her good-looking, dumb lover. Then of the dead man and his disappearance after promising Gladys Rowlands to return in a few minutes to drink champagne. Where in the world had he gone? Down to the cold iron framework below the pier? Into the manager’s office? To concealment somewhere? To an appointment? To a meeting unexpected and faithful to him? To instant death? Or deliberately out to sea?
Then suddenly Carolus almost stopped his car, as though he wanted to turn back to Oldhaven.
“I ought to have seen Miss Pepys!” he said to himself. “I ought not to have neglected Miss Pepys.”