Death of Cold
‘Murder,’ Carolus repeated happily to himself as he approached the booth occupied by the Original Gypsy Lee. There was nothing gloating in his savouring of the word, but he would have admitted, if he had been asked, that the mystery surrounding the late Mayor’s death was turning his rather dull and lonely holiday into an exciting one.
He felt particularly lucky in having the field to himself. He had been delighted when he heard that the police had no further interest in the matter. He could make what inquiries he liked in his own way without being told that he was interfering with a public service.
And what rich possibilities lay ahead. Already Mr. Grool, stung into the most slanderous interpretations of his fellow angler’s acquaintanceships, had given him enough to occupy him for a week of pleasant investigation. The fortune-teller, the barmaid, the housekeeper and ‘the new one’. They might all be as innocent as he already believed the Mayor’s friendship with Gladys was, but any one of them might lead Carolus to knowledge which in turn could help to clear up the mystery.
For a mystery there certainly was, whatever the police might say. A thumping big mystery, too. Wirral had been drowned, without previous violence, without a mark on him to suggest that he had been attacked before his unconscious body was thrown into the sea. There was no poison in his intestines and, since his death had actually been caused by drowning, it was no reason why there should have been. He had, apparently, entered the water of his own accord, but why should he have done so without even removing his coat and shoes, unless he intended to commit suicide? Yet suicide was still a solution which Carolus had to reject. The beefy, contented man with whom he had talked and drunk a few hours earlier was not one to contemplate self-destruction, whatever might have happened to him that afternoon.
He realized that he must gather all the information you could about Wirral and the movements of everyone concerned during that fatal afternoon and evening. No conjecture could be made of the time at which Wirral had . . . been immersed. (That was the only safe way of putting it—suicide, accident or murder.) If Grool spoke the truth, and in this particular it was almost certain that he did, Wirral had still been fishing when the ex-publican left the pier at six o’clock. As yet Carolus knew of no one who had seen him later than this. So with patients and unflagging curiosity he must begin to put together the information obtainable from a very varied collection of people.
First the Original Gypsy Lee, or Mrs. Hammock, as Mr. Grool claimed she was called. Her booth was almost concealed by placards and testimonials.
“The Original Gypsy Lee”, Carolus read, “Who has Successfully Foretold the Future of Members of the Royal Family.” “The Seer With Second Sight.” “Consultations Gratis—Lucky Charms 5/- and 2/6.” “Hours 10–1 and 3–6.” All this was surrounded with gaily coloured representations of the signs of the zodiac and photographs of the Original Gypsy Lee in action, a middle-aged, rather heavy woman with a scarf over her head and an immense pair of ear-rings peering into an outsize crystal.
Carolus gazed long at the romantic figure so depicted, saw the large rings on the fingers and the black ringlets escaping from the head-scarf. As he did so a large woman in a dark coat and skirt and carrying a shopping basket came up to the booth and inserted a key. Anyone less gypsy-like them this it would be difficult to imagine, yet in the face of Mrs. Hammock as she stood, out of breath and business-like, he could recognize the features in the photograph.
“Did you want something?” she asked.
“Yes. I thought perhaps you could tell my fortune.”
I don’t tell fortunes. I give consultations. Free, after you’ve purchased a lucky charm. She spoke in a low, hoarse voice, as though she were perpetually confiding a guilty secret or suffering from a throat affection. “Wait a minute while I put these things down. I’m late this morning. Queue again at the fish shop. You’d think the war was still on. I’ve got to get opened up.”
She was bringing out the impedimenta from her booth—more boards and decorations. Carolus watched with interest while she went on in her secretive voice.
“My husband works for the Council,” confided Mrs. Hammock, “and has to go off early. It’s as much as I can do to get the place straight and down here by ten without hanging about waiting for fish. But he will have his haddock. If there’s one thing my husband likes it’s his haddock, and if I don’t get it coming down in the morning I’m never sure because ten to one the shops are shut when I go back to cook the dinner. Now what did you want, five shillings or half a crown?”
“What’s the difference?” asked Carolus curiously.
“You get more for five shillings, of course, though I give you a very good idea for half a crown. It’s not everybody who’s got five shillings for anything like this, so I make the two charges.”
Carolus decided to try a sudden broadside.
“Which did Mr. Wirral have?” he asked.
“Eh?” said Mrs. Hammock loudly while she was recovering.
“I said, which did Mr. Wirral have that last day?”
Mrs. Hammock was busy arranging things in her booth.
“Oh, him,” she said. “I can’t remember now. It seems a long time ago, the way time flies past. I was only saying to my husband how this summer’s gone before you know it.”
“He did have a consultation that day, then? I thought perhaps he might have just come over for a chat.”
Mrs. Hammock gave Carolus a slow, suspicious stare.
“I don’t know what it’s to do with you, I’m sure,” she said.
“His family have asked me to try to find out the truth about his death.”
“Well, he was drowned, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. But how? When? Where? Why?”
“Ah, now you’re asking. I’ll tell you one thing, though. He was a very good sort, was Mr. Wirral. He’d help anyone.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I know because it was him got me permission to set up. There was those who was against it from the first. Didn’t think it was good for Oldhaven to have an Original Gypsy Lee. I told them why not? I said. Brighton’s got an Original Gypsy Lee. So’s Bournemouth. Blackpool’s got two. And there’s one at Clacton, that I know of. Why shouldn’t Oldhaven? I asked.”
“And the late Mayor supported you?”
“So I was told. He was a good sort, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have told them straight out.”
“I suppose it’s quite hard work being an Original Gypsy Lee.”
“It is and it isn’t. It depends. There’re some lady consultants talk of nothing but funerals and that. Proper dismal jimmies. Tell the people of deaths and illnesses and I don’t know what all. I don’t believe in that. I give them a nice cheerful bit about fortunes being left to them and good times coming. If I do say anything else, it’s usually to tell them that their own family is against them. Funny thing, they all seem to like that.” Mrs. Hammock became thoughtful. “I told Mr. Wirral that. I said, there’s those near and dear to you, I said, would turn against you if they dead, I said; and he wanted to know more about that. I did my best to give him a nice long talk because of him having helped to get me this pitch. But it’s not easy, you know. I couldn’t think of anything much after I done the stranger coming into his life, and the letter from across the sea, and the dark woman who would bring him surprises, and the unexpected sum of money. So I looked at him straight in the face and said, you must be careful, I said. What of? he wants to know. Well, I had to say something. I was looking out over his shoulder and I could see the sea out there. Water, I said. Beware of water! It seems as though it came true, doesn’t it?”
“Was he quite cheerful?”
“Cheerful? I should think he was. A bit too cheerful, if anything. I thought to myself, You’re a cheerful old spark, I must say. Of course, he hadn’t long come from his lunch.”
“What time was this?”
“I should say it was round about three. I couldn’t say for certain. I knew who it was as soon as he popped in. Well, my husband works for the Council. He said he’d heard a lot about me, he said. So I thought to myself I should have to do the best I could. I didn’t hurry. I gave him the long bit about someone jealous who would try to do the dirty but fail and the little trouble which would shew who his true friends were and turn out for the best in the end. He seemed ever so pleased with what I told him.”
“He wasn’t anxious about anything?”
“Not that I noticed. You couldn’t imagine him being anxious.”
“Did he ask any questions?”
“Yes, he did.” Mrs. Hammock’s face became hard and a little angry. “That’s a thing I don’t like—a lot of questions, as though they was trying to catch you out. I sometimes say to them, I say, This is a consultation, not twenty questions, I say. I won’t have it at all from the half-crowns and not more than I can help from the five shillings. Well, it’s not right. I do my best for everyone, I’m sure, but I don’t see why they should start poking and prying to see if they can make me say something wrong. You don’t know what people are with anything like this. They seem to think they’ve got the right to pick on you. Mind you, I’m not easily caught. You’d never believe the mean tricks they get up to. Pulling their rings off before they come in, then asking if they’re married. Talking foreign and asking where they was born. I had one in the other day doing that. Where was I born, he asked. Not far from a big river, I told him. That was true enough, as it turned out, because he came from Wapping.”
“But Mr. Wirral?”
“I’m waiting for a big event, he said; what will it be? I knew he wasn’t married and his daughter was, so I thought I’d chance it. You won’t have to wait long, I said, and it will be just what you’ve been hoping. He was ever so pleased at that.”
Mrs. Hammock had now arranged her head-scarf and ringlets and fixed the huge ear-rings in place. She was ready to do battle with the public who would try to pick on her, as she put it.
“Did you see Mr. Wirral again that day—after his consultation, I mean.”
“Who, me? No. I was busy. I closed at usual at six.”
“Then went straight home?”
“Certainly. I had my husband’s tea to get. I never hang about once I’ve finished. It Wouldn’t Do. Besides, I work long enough as it is. Very tiring sometimes.”
“Which branch of the Lee family do you come from?” asked Carolus.
“Well, my mother was from Hampshire,” said Mrs. Hammock ambiguously.
“You were born in a tent, I expect?” encouraged Carolus.
“Whatever do you mean? I was born in Oldhaven hospital, and it was all paid for. No stamps and that in those days. Born in a tent! Whatever gave you such an idea, I would like to know.”
“I thought the gypsy . . .”
“Oh, that. That’s just a name. Well, you’ve got to call yourself something, haven’t you? I don’t like these foreign names they take—Madame this and Madame that. Nor does my husband. He was only saying, my wife’s no madam, he said, and I won’t have her calling herself one. He doesn’t mind this, though.
“And is it profitable?”
“It hasn’t been much this year. Not for the work. People don’t seem to want to know the future, and you can’t really blame them, can you? I try not to upset anyone, of course, but they think it will be nothing but death and destruction and that. Now, what about you? You did say the five shilling one, didn’t you? Let me see your palm, then.”
When Carolus stood up ten minutes later he was a wise man. He had learnt that he was a married solicitor with two children who was worried about his income and would be able to purchase a small motor-car next year but should leave the flat he was living in and beware of a man from a foreign country. He would shortly receive a number of highly satisfactory communications and hear of a small legacy.
“How do you like that?” asked the Original Gypsy Lee.
“It’s uncanny,” said Carolus.
“I knew you’d be pleased. Now there’s one thing more about Mr. Wirral. I wasn’t going to tell you. It was something he said after I’d finished. He gave me a ten-shilling note. Then he said that if a lady came here presently—large party with auburn hair and two gold teeth—I was to tell her that her life was threatened and she must leave Oldhaven at once. Make it real, he said. She believe it. Proper superstitious. I was to make her feel she was seriously threatened.”
“And did you?”
“She never came,” said Mrs. Hammock. “I expected her all that afternoon. But she never came, then or since. So I couldn’t tell her.”
“No,” said Carolus, and at last escaped to the deck.