Death of Cold
The little bell on the fishing-rod tinkled, but there was no one to draw in the line.
An evening breeze fanned Oldhaven pier, and all the anglers who usually smoked their pipes and grunted gossip while they waited for dabs and occasional plaice to take their bait had long since gone. Only one rod remained, and beside it a basket and a canvas bag left carelessly on the seat. It was half-past seven, and still the little bell tinkled sadly.
No one noticed it. Alec Slicker, manager both of the pier and the Pier Theatre, was in his office recovering from too much whisky drunk at lunch-time. John Rowlands, the most conscientious of the pier attendants, was off duty that afternoon. His daughter Gladys, who worked in the Elizabethan Bar on the pier, was busy with the usual crowd of holiday-makers who came in for a drink before they went into the theatre to see The Comusicals, whose performance began at eight o’clock. The Original Gypsy Lee, the World’s Greatest Seer, had closed her booth and gone home to get her husband’s tea. Old Hammond was on duty in his box beside the turnstile. Nobody heard the bell on the fishing-rod.
Down in the darkling sea the two dabs whose throats were being torn by the hooks they had swallowed made last despairing writhings to escape. They pulled the line and set the bell tinkling afresh now wildly, as if they knew that they were calling to passers-by to release them from their cold agonies. But in vain.
“Night sank upon the dusky beach, and on the purple sea.” The Comusicals finished their performance, the Elizabethan Bar closed and the staff went home, leaving the dark pier to John Rowlands, who returned for night duty. He made his rounds carefully enough, but did not see the rod.
The dabs did not die. Their writhings became less, but life persisted in their cold, tortured bodies until the line was pulled in next day and they were left on the planks of the pier in pale September sunlight to wriggle no more. The dabs did not die or the little bell cease to tickle intermittently all night.
It was, in fact, John Rowlands, going off night duty at nine o’clock next morning and making his dignified parade round the pier, who noticed the rod, the basket and the canvas bag.
“That’s funny,” he said aloud, though his face shewed nothing like a reaction to the comic.
He knew most of the fishermen who came daily to the pier, but could only guess at the ownership of these articles.
“I wonder if they are old Grool’s,” he said to himself, “or Mr. Wirral’s.”
Mr. Grool was a retired publican, and nobody could imagine how a man as surly as he was could have been successful enough behind a bar to be able to retire. Stooping and sly in appearance, his eyes avoided others, and he spoke as though words were coins which he begrudged spending.
Mr. Wirral, on the other hand, the Mayor of Oldhaven, was a hearty man, fond of a joke, a drink and a pretty girl. John Rowlands, who had what he himself called strict principles, disapproved of Mr. Wirral for his boisterous gusto, his fondness for a smutty story and his taste for drink, though, owing to Mr. Wirral’s position in the town, he had to maintain his disapproval behind a respectful front.
“This is about where they were yesterday morning,” he thought. “What can have made either of them go off without his rod?”
He walked down to the pier gates to see Old Hammond, who was in the pay-box on the turnstile. He did not approve of Old Hammond either. Old Hammond was privileged, a popular character, a pet of the manager and public. He said—the bitter emphasis was given to the word by John Rowlands himself—he said he had sailed before the mast, and he allowed his white whiskers and beard to grow in an inverted halo round his shaved chin to give himself an old-fashioned nautical appearance. he wore an old-fashioned blue jersey, and when of duty smoked a clay pipe. John Rowlands did not believe that you’ve been farther to sea than the end of the pier and resented his ponderously jocose matter with the holiday-makers.
“Any more for the Skylark ?” Old Hammond was heard to shout as he took their coppers from oncoming pier visitors. An unseemly way of behaving, thought John Rowlands whenever heard it.
This morning, however, Rowlands had to go and consult Old Hammond about the abandoned rod and line.
“Good morning, Mr. Hammond,” he said. He believed in being affable and cheerful, though he knew that Old Hammond would be neither. Like most professional funny men, gay dogs, ‘screams’, good mixers and public clowns, Old Hammond was bad-tempered when he had no suitable audience.
Rowlands received no answer to his greeting.
“Did you see Mr. Grool got off the pier yesterday?” he asked.
This caught Old Hammond’s interest.
“Soon after six, it must have been. Why?”
“What about Mr. Wirral?”
Old Hammond appeared to contemplate.
“No. I didn’t see him going. Why?”
“One of them’s left his line in the water. And his basket and lunch-bag. I can’t make it out.”
Old Hammond blinked. His curiosity was aroused, too.
“I should have seen the Mayor if he’d gone off,” he said. “He usually says good night to be, and last night I was waiting for him.”
“Whatever do you mean, Mr. Hammond? You’d have seen him. Are you suggesting he’s still on the pier?”
“Must be,” said Old Hammond. “Unless he went off early. I tell you I was waiting to speak to him last night. I had a message for him.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything before you left?”
“I thought he must have gone early and I must have missed him. Or stayed on for The Comusicals. Now you tell me his rod’s still there. There’s something funny about it.”
John Rowlands had no time to puzzle this out, for just then they were approached by two men who had walked over from the car park. One of these they both knew—young Dr. Fyrth, the Mayor’s son-in-law. The other was a pale, elegant man of forty.
“Morning,” said Dr. Fyrth sharply. “Did either of you see Mr. Wirral leave the pier last night?”
“We were just discussing it . . .” began John Rowlands.
But a notable change had come over Old Hammond. He had become in a moment the boisterous old sea-dog. His public manner was assumed.
“That’s just what we were a-yarning about, sir,” he said, interrupting Rowlands. “It seems that Mr. Wirral never went ashore from the pier last night. You remember your message for him?” he addressed Dr. Fyrth. “I never gave it because he didn’t pass my box.”
Dr. Fyrth looked anxious.
“This is most extraordinary,” he said. “This is Mr. Deene, by the way, a friend of mine. Most extraordinary. The Mayor has not been home all night.”
“Well, I’m damned,” said Old Hammond before Rowlands could speak. “It is a rum sort of turn-out, isn’t it? Not been home all night? That’s not like him, is it? What about his car?”
“He did not have it with him yesterday.”
Rowlands was determined to add his important piece of information.
“A rod and line . . .” he began.
“Rowlands here was just reporting to me,” said Old Hammond, “that he has found a rod and line and other things left all night on the pier.”
“Mr. Wirral’s?” asked Dr. Fyrth quickly of Rowlands.
“I don’t know. I couldn’t recognize the different . . .”
“Must be,” said Old Hammond. “Stands to reason. The man is missing and never been seen to leave the pier. Rod and line left there. Who else’s can it be? As I wasn’t able to give him your message,” he said, turning to Dr. Fyrth, “he can’t have known last night he was a grandfather.”
“You were waiting for him to leave after I came and told you to give him the news?”
“That’s it. I should have seen him, I’m sure. Everyone likes to give good news,” he explained to a pained-looking Rowlands and Carolus Deene. “Dr. Fyrth came and told me to catch the Mayor on his way and tell him he was a grandfather. I wasn’t likely to miss him after that.”
“What time did I tell you that?” asked Fyrth.
“About half-past six. All I can say is Mr. Wirral must have left the pier before then. He certainly never left it afterwards.”
“But wouldn’t you had seen him? Even if he had gone earlier, which is unlike him.”
“I should have thought so. Any time after six I should have for certain. It is a funny turn-out, isn’t it? Mother and child doing well?”
“Yes, thank you. Yes. I suppose we had better go and look at this rod,” he added.
“Come round by the other gate,” said Old Hammond magnanimously. “No need to pay for that.¿”
He regretfully remained in his box while the three walked away. A moment later he was singing to himself as he took the coppers from two small boys. “A life on the ocean wave,” he sang as he motioned them on through the turnstile. “A home on the rolling deep.” Even this morning he must be the ‘character’, ‘that cheerful old man on the pier’, a part of everybody’s summer holidays, like the military band and the sand castle.
Presently he saw Dr. Fyrth and his friend returning.
“Yes. It was the Mayor’s rod all right,” said Fyrth. “He left his bag and basket there, too. Extraordinary thing. We shall have to report to the police.”
“The Mayor won’t like that. Suppose he’s just popped off somewhere? He won’t want a lot of coppers chasing after him. You know what he is, I mean. Likes a little spree, now’n again.”
“I know,” said Fyrth. “But this may be serious. It’s so unlike him to walk off and leave his rod. There were two fish on his line,” he added thoughtfully.
“Were there now? Been on all night very likely. As you say, it’s not like Mr. Wirral. Always hailed me with a cheery good night unless I was engaged with anyone. You don’t think it he could have been taken ill, do you? Somewhere on the pier, I mean?”
“I expect it will be searched,” said Fyrth.
“Well, I am sorry. Worrying for you on your holiday. And with the New Arrival and everything. But what’s the good of talking? We must find Mr. Wirral, that’s what we must do.”
He watched the two cross the road, walking towards the car park. “And calm and peaceful shall I sleep,” he sang, “rocked in the cradle of the deep.” He paused to call good morning to the pier manager hurrying on with a pale face and red-rimmed eyes, then repeated his last line, reaching down towards the basso profondo. “Rocked in the . . . cradle . . . of . . . the . . . deep.”
An hour later he was greeting, no less cheerfully, two plainclothes policemen who arrived to investigate the disappearance of Mr. Wirral. These were a Detective Sergeant and a Detective Constable, local specimens of the C.I.D. The Sergeant, Cotter, was short and sturdy, the Constable, Hawkins, was worried-looking and rather untidy in dress.
“Come to search?” suggested Old Hammond, admitting them to them by the gate beside the turnstile. You’ll probably find him in the theatre suffering from loss of memory. I’m sure he never went off last night.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Ah,” said Old Hammond, as though this was his secret. “You’ll know when you find him.”
It was not, however, Sergeant Cotter and Constable Hawkins who found Mr. Wirral, or what was left of him, but a trio of schoolboys who had gone prawning on the rocks a mile away four days later. They came on his body sprawling hideously across the beach, left there by the tide, a bloated and gruesome sight which sent them running to find someone, anyone adult, in whom they could confide their discovery.