Death of Cold
You wouldn’t do a dirty trick like that, sir,” said Rupert Priggley, stretched out in an armchair with a cigarette between his fingers. “You couldn’t go and call on Violette Bonner and not take me.”
“I certainly could and probably shall. If Violette is the woman I think she is, she wouldn’t have you in the house.”
“I can’t wait to see her. Was she really a Gaiety girl?”
“A generation later.”
“But real period stuff?”
“I haven’t met her.”
“Shall we run up tomorrow after five o’clock? We might see the Christopher Fry thing afterwards. It will rather go with Violette, I should think.”
“What about your parents?” he asked.
“Parents? There’s no one at home. My latest stepmother has gone to Cannes and Papa’s too thrilled by the prospect of another divorce to come home much. Mummy’s with her Brazilian in Cairo. I don’t know who’s going to object to my coming with you to meet Violette Bonner.”
“In her day she was called a vamp.”
“I know. That’s what makes it so gay. When I think of the various phases of the Violette Bonners during Papa’s life-time alone, I feel quite giddy. Vamps, Gaiety girls, ‘little bits of fluff’, ‘girlies’, ‘flappers’ or in a hearty possessive way ‘wenches’—I’ve heard them all. Kirchner girls, ‘It girls’, ‘pieces’, ‘trollops’, ‘bits’, ‘bright young things’—what a time you’ve all had. Violette sounds like a grand old piece of World War One probably preserved in alcohol.”
“You’re a very unpleasant boy.”
“That’s what the headmaster thinks. He called me in today. ‘Can my ears have deceived me?’ he asked. ‘I thought I heard you refer to the matron as . . . in fact as a female quadruped.’ I pointed out that I haven’t called her a bitch, only an old cow, but it did not seem to do much good. ‘This is shameful language, Priggley. I hope you never again allow my ears to be assailed by such words.’ Has it, by the way, come to his ears that you are on another murder job?”
“Better not let it. He hated the last case. What time are we going tomorrow?”
It was seven o’clock next evening when Carolus with Rupert Priggley beside him drove into Bayswater and asked for Cavendish Hill Gardens. He found them to look very much as he expected, a row of large stucco houses with hideous porticoes. Their pretentiousness had become drab and rather squalid-looking children played on their pavements. But when he rang the bell beside which a visiting-card announced Miss Violette Bonner, an astonishing thing happened for which even Carolus was unprepared. A little creature, no more than seventeen and small and peaky for her age, opened the door dressed in all the out-moded accoutrements of a maidservant—cap, apron and black dress.
“Oh no,” whispered Rupert Priggley. “I can’t believe it.”
“Is Miss Bonner at home?” asked Carolus loudly to cover this.
“What name shall I say?”
“Deene. Perhaps you would tell Miss Bonner that it concerns the late Mr. Wirral.”
They were shewn into a drawing-room. Not a ‘lounge’, a ‘sitting-room’, a ‘living-room’ or a ‘studio’, but a drawing-room as once one knew in such apartments. It was icily cold, and the little maidservant stooped to light the gas-fire with a loud pop.
“Miss Bonner won’t keep you a minute,” she said and left them.
Carolus looked at the chintz-covered chairs, the silver-framed photographs of army officers of the First World War, the brass fender, the pampas grass, the bad water-colours in gilt frames, the Mirzapore carpet, the piano with Worcester china on it, the bearskin rug. Rupert Priggley was enchanted.
“It’s like paying a call on the past,” he said. “I suppose she’s timing her entry.”
Clearly she was, and when she came into the room it was with a sweeping movement and an outstretched hand. She was just as she had been described—a splendid woman, all breasts and buttocks, with a ponderous mass of dyed hair and a rich smile.
“I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. I was just putting my little dog to bed. He’s not well, I’m afraid. Please sit down.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus. “I wanted . . .”
“You are Mr. Wirral’s lawyer, I take it. I thought perhaps I might be receiving a little call from you. I was so sorry to hear about his passing. One of my oldest friends, as you probably know.”
“No, I’m not his lawyer,” began Carolus. “I hoped . . .”
“Not? Just a friend, then. His executor, I suppose. Of course, I scarcely knew the friends he made during his later years. We were separated by circumstances. He had his life and I mine.”
“I don’t know whether I can even . . .”
“In any case, it is a pleasure to see you. A friend of Poopy Wirral is a friend of mine. Dear, dear, it seems only yesterday that we were dining at the Troc and he told me that his leave was finished and tomorrow he was going back to the trenches. He had kept it back from me till then because he knew it would spoil those few precious hours. He was always such a considerate boy.”
“Miss Bonner,” said Carolus firmly, “I am investigating the circumstances of Mr. Wirral’s death.”
Violette Bonner drew herself up rather dramatically.
“Investigating?” she said.
“Yes. I am a detective.”
She stared at Carolus but it was difficult to know whether she felt surprise, apprehension or merely scorn.
“I didn’t know there were any ‘circumstances’ to be investigated,” she said at last.
“Mr. Wirral was found drowned, but no one can say how this came about.”
“I see. And you thought that perhaps I might be able to give you some information which would help you.” She was quite calm now. “You knew that I was once a great, great friend of his.”
“Yes. As you probably know, he remembered you in his Will.”
“The silly boy! I never expected anything like that. I have my little income and it is sufficient for my needs. But Poopy was always the soul of generosity. I remember the night when he gave me a diamond brooch—a beautiful present. ‘How it sparkles!’ I said, and he made a reply about my eyes. It seems like yesterday , but I suppose—dear me, it must be thirty years ago.”
“When did you see him last?” asked Carolus.
“Oh, not for some time. May I offer you a drink? I have taught my little maid to make cocktails, but perhaps you would prefer a whiskey-and-soda? I thought so. Men nearly always do.”
“What do you call ‘some time’, Miss Bonner?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She gave Carolus her full smile. “We were such old friends. Days or years—what does it matter?” She attacked a bell-pull and the little servant appeared.
“Drinks, Marcia,” she said, then, turning to Carolus when the girl had gone—“Marcia! What a name for a maid. My mother would soon have changed that. She always called servants who had unsuitable names ‘Mary’. But nowadays we must bow to fashion.”
“Did you, for instance, see him on the day before he disappeared?”
“I never remember just when that was. Back in September wasn’t it? Such a glorious month. I adore the autumn. One feels a little wistful perhaps with the falling of the leaves and bonfires, but it’s a happy wistfulness. Ah, here are the drinks. Will you help yourself? Men prefer that, I know. Thank you, Marcia. Just leave them there.”
“Perhaps I should tell you frankly, Miss Bonner, that I know you were staying in Oldhaven at the time.”
Violette Bonner smiled. She might have been almost relieved.
“Oh indeed? Well, now. It’s very easy to make a mistake, isn’t it? But don’t let us talk of that sad, sad event. The evenings are drawing in, aren’t they?”
“Would you mind telling me whether or not you saw Mr. Wirral on the day of his disappearance.”
“I wouldn’t mind at all. But I think you should hear the whole story. Isolated facts are so misleading, aren’t they?” She raised her glass. “Chin! Chin!” she beamed.
Carolus saw that there was no remedy for it. Violette Bonner must have her say.
“I am a clergyman’s daughter,” she began inevitably. “I was born in a Wiltshire vicarage. But even as a small girl I yearned for broader horizon, and after I had left school, instead of becoming a nursery governess, as my parents wished, I ran away to London. When the war came in 1914 I had been in the chorus of one or two musical comedies. You are not old enough to remember these, but I had several little speaking parts. In one, I had to peep round a tree, I remember, and say, ‘Look, girls! It’s the American! And isn’t he wild!’ Little things like that. The money we earned in those days doesn’t sound much now, but of course things were cheaper. I had a dear little room in Pimlico with a pet of a landlady for half a guinea a week. . . .”
“Yes, yes, Miss Bonner,” Carolus could not help putting in, but Rupert made a sign, begging him not to interrupt. The boy was listening, fascinated by Violette Bonner’s recital.
“You’re interested in Poopy Wirral, though. I’m just coming to that. The gentlemen were very attentive to us all in those days. Chorus ladies were taking everywhere and several of them married into the highest circles. I have not been that the gentleman who . . . the friend, in fact . . . I’m not referring to Mr. Wirral, but to a certain gentleman . . . we were never able to marry, you see. . . . I hope you won’t misunderstand . . .”
Violette Bonner look so soulful and distressed that Carolus did not sternly try to drag her back to the subject.
“I quite understand, Miss Bonner,” he said.
“It was he who found me this little flat. He never let me want for anything. When he died five years ago I found he had provided for me. . . . He was a gentleman, Mr. Deene, such as you don’t find nowadays. There was never any sordid little intrigue. I walked straight from the chorus of Yes, Yes, Yvonne into this little nest of mine, and have never wanted anything else. And until the day he died my gentleman friend—who of course must remain anonymous, though you would know his name very well if I were able to mention it—my gentleman friend never missed one day in sending me violets. They used to come from the florists at the corner as regularly as the shop opened, and two bunches on Saturday, so I should have one fresh for church on Sunday morning. He knew they were my favourite flowers. ‘Violets for Violette’ he used to say. But, as I tell you, I only met this gentleman after I had lost—well, became separated from—Poopy Wirral.”
“Yes, it was about that . . .”
Violette Bonner held up her hand to command silence.
“It was in the second year of the war, or 1916 perhaps, that I met Poopy. . . .”
“What a curious name, Miss Bonner. Do you know how Mr. Wirral came by it?”
Violette Bonner smiled.
“I don’t. It was his nickname among his fellow officers in his regiment. They all call him Poopy. I never heard him called anything else. He was not a regular soldier, of course. I understood that his father had a printing works and owned a newspaper at Oldhaven. He was just in the Army, like other brave boys, for the war.”
“He came to the stage door, perhaps?” said Carolus, who realized that he could not cut short the recital, only perhaps jog it on a little.
“Oh no. I never encouraged that sort of thing. No, he was introduced to me in the Cri by another chorus lady, Marguerite Luck. We used to spend much of our time together. She was engaged to a brother officer of Poopy’s and he asked her to bring along a friend as the two gentlemen would be together. It was a warm summer night, I remember, and there had been a full house, as usual. We were both appearing in Chu Chin Chow then. . . .”
“Yes, yes. And so you met Mr. Wirral?”
“Poopy was with his friend when we arrived. It was like destiny—our meeting. He was not a young boy, like so many officers. You must have been in his thirties then. A very manly man. He was rather forceful, I saw at once, accustomed to having his own way. But a gentleman. Anyone could see that. We all had supper together, and the two boys escorted us home with a promise to meet next day. I was very happy that night. I thought that something wonderful was coming into my life.”
There were no tears in Miss Bonner’s eyes she recalled this, but a look of great soulfulness.
“I need not tell you all about that leave of his. He had fourteen days, and only two had passed. In that remaining time we passed from mere acquaintanceship to love. If there had been no war we should have become engaged, and in due course I should’ve been Mrs. Wirral. How different it all might have been! But in that strange, cruel time we could do nothing but promise one another . . .”
“Yes, Miss Bonner?”
Now there was a catch in her voice.
“He never returned,” she said. “He went back to Flanders, and I never saw him again. . . .”
“Well . . . allow me to finish the story, please. I mean he did not come to see me when he returned from France. The years began to pass, and I met the gentleman . . . I became . . . I mean, my path was not his. I saw no more of Poopy Wirral for many, many years. Indeed, it would not have been correct for me to do so. The gentleman . . . my friend . . .”
“Quite,” said Carolus.
“Then my little maid took her annual holiday at Oldhaven. One day after her return I was sitting idly in this very room gazing into an empty grate. There was no gas-fire here then, for I much prefer coal. So cosy, I always think. My little maid had put a newspaper into the grate for the summer months and my eyes fell on this. What did I see? But you have guessed! I picked it up and found myself examining a portrait of my old friend Poopy Wirral. Under it the wording described him as the popular Mayor of Oldhaven. He was holding up a number of fish. He had won the angling competition!”
“It’s a small world,” ventured Rupert Priggley.
“I could not resist it. I flew to my escritoire and then and there penned him a little note, reminding him of our . . . relationship of many years ago. I told him of Marguerite Luck who did not marry the officer of that night at the Cri but became the wife of a publican in Chertsey. I recalled little intimate things which had made us sad or given us laughter all those years ago. Then, in a mischievous mood and on an impulse, I added: ‘I’m coming down to Oldhaven on Thursday and shall stay at the Queen’s Hotel.’ I scarcely know what made me do it. I have always been a creature of unaccountable moods and whimsies. Without waiting for a reply to my letter, I actually went.”
“I stayed at the Queen’s, as I said. On the Thursday evening, soon after I had come down to the lounge, I telephoned Poopy at his house and asked him to dine with me on the following evening. Later I was amused to see him pass through quickly to the hotel bar, from the doorway of which I caught him peeping out at me. He had come to spy out the land! I behaved as though I had not seen him, and it was rather clever of me to recognize him. The man I had last seen was an officer, straight and athletic-looking. Poor Poopy now was very much the Mayor, I could see. But time changes us all. Next day, the Friday, I thought to myself that if Poopy could come and take a peep at me, I could go and take a peep at Poopy. So I popped down to the pier.”
“Perfect!” put in Priggley.
“And there he was, fishing away. This time we knew one another at once, and he followed me towards the end of the pier and spoke to me there. He did not wish to be observed with me just then, and suggested that we should descend by the iron staircase to the landing-stage below. And there, to the sound of the sea breaking below us, we talked again after all those years!”
“What time would that have been?” asked Carolus in a rather to0 business-like way.
“How unromantic you are! I have no idea of the time, I’m afraid. It might have been about four. I remember I went to the Tudor Tea Lounge afterwards and had tea. I was to see Poopy that evening, when he would be my guest for dinner. But what made us both most conscious of the passing years was that he was waiting, that very day, for the news which would make him a grandfather.”
“And that evening?”
“He never came. I went to bed in great distress, and next morning ’phoned his house to hear that he had not been home all night. I greatly regretted my impulse to come and see him, and took the next train back to London. I was glad to return to my own little flat.”
“So you did not see Mr. Wirral at all after your interview on the landing-stage, which was probably between four and five?”
“No. Not at all, I’m afraid. I only wish I could say something to help you clear up this mystery. But there it is. I have tried to be as frank as I can.”
“How long have you know that you are mentioned in the Will?”
“Since that very afternoon. ‘I have never forgotten you,’ Poppy said, ‘as you would have seen if I went before you.’ Just like him. So kind and thoughtful. A dear boy. Was he murdered?”
This somewhat staccato finish to Violette Bonner’s story did not seem to surprise Carolus.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “I think he was.”
“Oh dear,” said Violette Bonner. “That means someone will be hanged, doesn’t it?”
“I hope so,” retorted Carolus, rising to leave.