Death of Cold
Next it must be the late Mayor’s home and housekeeper, thought Carolus as he lunched alone at the Aberdare. These would probably tell him little or nothing, but there was always the chance, which encouraged throughout all his researches, that’s some salient fact might emerge unexpectedly, in a casual observation, perhaps.
He needed it. It was true he was only beginning to work through the list of those he must cross-examine, but even so, with his first morning gone and three of his best possibilities exhausted, how little of real significance he had learned. He had started with the knowledge, which was as certain as anything could be in this speculative world of detection, that Mr. Wirral had died by drowning. In essentials he had not advanced beyond that point. He did not know whether the Mayor had entered the water of his own accord, if he had been pushed into it or if he had slipped in. If either of the latter were the case, Carolus did not know why he had not swum back to the pier. He did not know at precisely what place in that sinister, resounding region under the deck of the pier which could be reached by an iron companion-way the things had happened, or if indeed it had happened there at all. He had no idea what time it had taken place, whether in daylight with people moving overhead or after dark, when the pier was deserted. If the last, he did not know what could have made Mr. Wirral obligingly stay on the pier till it was time for him to be murdered.
Most detection started with a fresh corpse and an approximate time at which the victim had died, and often the method used by the murderer. He not only had none of these, but he was not even sure that there had been a murderer. All he had was four rather contradictory accounts of Wirral’s life and character and some details of his last day.
Glendower, the late Mayor’s house, was on a hill, one of a few score rather pretentious houses built during the period of the town’s first prosperity, the 1880’s. It was a very ugly red brick building with a turret. The gates still open and Carolus could drive in. The front-door had been made invisible from the road by a collection of uninteresting trees and shrubs, including a dank big tree which looked what it was, a shivering exile from warmer climates. And ornamental wrought-iron bell-pull sounded an electric bell.
Mrs. Thump herself answered it. She was a dark, stocky woman with a moustache.
Carolus quickly explained his business. Mrs. Thump looked rather furtively to right and left.
“Come in,” she said, as though apprehensive of observation.
Carolus passed under a grotesque hanging lamp of coloured glass called Moorish and entered a room dominated by functional furniture, and enormous ornamental coal-shuttle, a set of giant firearms, a solid sideboard under silver dish covers, a no less cumbersome dining-table and a number of hassocks. It had been painted in dull crimson many years ago.
“You must excuse the dining-room,” said Mrs. Thump. “I’ve put the dust-sheets on the drawing-room things. There’s only me to do anything—I got rid of the girls yesterday.
Carolus shrank into one of two armchairs between the table and the empty fireplace.
“Have you been long with Mr. Wirral?” he asked.
There was a touch of defiance in Mrs. Thump’s manner as she answered that.
“Twelve years,” she said. “Ever since he lost his wife. Mr. Paul was twenty when I came and Miss Greta fourteen. You might say I brought her up.”
“You know the family well, then?” smiled Carolus.
“Of course I do. If I don’t know them, nobody does.”
“Do you think Mr. Wirral was a man to commit suicide?”
“It’s hard to say, isn’t it? I mean, what else could it have been, unless he slipped into the water somehow? Not that I’d have thought it of him. He always seemed a man who enjoyed his life. Still, there you are. You never know, do you? We’re not to judge.”
Carolus watched Mrs. Thump rather curiously. He had the feeling that she was only giving him half her attention. In a moment she looked up at the clock and said, “Would you excuse me a minute? I’ve just got to make a telephone call.”
When she had left him in that gruesome room he noticed that a daily paper lay on the table with a pencil and sheet of notepaper beside it. Standing up, he saw that this was a list of selections for the afternoon’s racing at Hurst Park. He had scarcely sat down when Mrs. Thump returned to collect this, needing it, he gathered, for her call.
“I won’t keep you a minute,” she said, going out again.
“I understand you went down to see Mr. Wirral on the pier that last afternoon,” said Carolus when she had returned and sat down.
“Who told you that?” asked Mrs. Thump sternly. Then, quickly recovering, she added, “Why shouldn’t I have done, I’d like to know? It was my afternoon out, as it happened.”
“Would you mind telling me what you went to see him about?”
There was a short pause, then Mrs. Thump said, “It was Miss Greta—that’s Mrs. Fyrth. She was in the nursing home and we were expecting the news any minute. I went to see if Mr. Wirral had heard anything. Well, it was only natural. She’s like one of my own.”
“And had he heard anything?”
“Not then, he hadn’t. It was about four o’clock when I got there, and he hadn’t heard anything then. Except what the fortune-teller had told him,” added Mrs. Thump, with a suggestion of a smile.
“So you came away again?”
“No, I didn’t. I took a deck-chair farther down the pier and waited. Mr. Wirral was expecting the news any minute.”
“How long did you stay?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Quite a time, it must have been.”
“About how long?”
“I couldn’t say,” said Mrs. Thump quickly, as though she had long prepared the answer. “I couldn’t say at all.”
“But you remember when you left the pier?”
“No, I don’t. I can’t say at all how long I was there. Not if you was to offer me a hundred pounds, I couldn’t say.”
The dark little woman who had seemed rather dull before had become suddenly emphatic.
“Mrs. Thump, this may be quite an important matter. Do try to give me some idea of what time you left the pier.”
“It’s no good you asking me, because I don’t know. It may have been any time. I couldn’t say at all.”
“Was it light when you left? Or had the . . .”
“I don’t know, I keep telling you. What’s the good of keeping on? If a person doesn’t know a thing, there it is.”
“Had Mr. Wirral heard anything when you left? You must remember when you had the news about Mrs. Fyrth?”
“I can’t remember that, either. I know I knew that evening, because I bought a drink for my sister in the Duke later. But when I heard, I don’t know.”
Carolus perceived that he was up against a very stubborn woman, and left the matter for a moment.
“At what time was Mr. Wirral expected home that evening?”
“He was going out to dinner,” said Mrs. Thump, less aggressively. “ I don’t know where or with who it was, but he told me not to leave him anything here. So I didn’t expect him back till ten, at the earliest. When it came to one o’clock I ’phoned Mr. Paul. He told me not to worry. Well, Mr. Wirral was a one to celebrate anything like that. We didn’t Think anything till the morning.”
“I see. Do you know of any worries he had?”
“Not to say worries. Of course Mr. Paul was always a bit of a Cross for him. Always have been. Big ideas, Mr. Paul had, but not fond of work. I don’t know that Mr. Wirral was worried, exactly, but it was always there.
“Not that I know of. But I never asked or ferreted. A man’s affairs are his own. Mr. Wirral was all right with me and you should Take as you Find. You couldn’t call him a generous man, and there was times when him and me had differences about the housekeeping. But there you are. You can’t have it both ways. It was very good in Some Things, I will say that. I was sorry to See Him Go. It seemed a shame that the house will be broken up. Auction and that, I understand. Neither of them want to live here and it’s time I had a bit of a rest. You can go on So Long, but there comes a time. Would you like a cup of tea before you go?”
“I should be very glad of one,” said Carolus, who was quite prepared to let this wayward chatter continue.
“Of course,” said Mrs. Thump when she had brought the tray, “there was Bridger.”
She get this drop resoundingly in the big, ugly dining-room and said no more while she blew the surface of her tea.
Carolus did as was expected of him. “Bridger?” he asked.
“Yes. The chauffeur. Mr. Wirral had to get rid of him.”
Carolus secretly groaned. Another suspect, he thought despairingly.
“Ever such a nice young man on the outside,” said Mrs. Thump, then added mysteriously, “It was Mrs. Paul’s wife.”
What did one say in answer to that? wondered Carolus. “Oh yes?” “Really?” “You don’t say?” Or simply “No!” He plumped for the latter.
“Yes,” continued Mrs. Thump between noisy sips. “Much too friendly, they were. Well, she’s a crazy little thing, anyway. Pleasure mad. Shall get herself into trouble one of these days. The way she drives that car! It was before they’d taken the flat they’re in now, and they were staying here. I saw her more than once when Mr. Paul had gone off to the office. She used to wear trousers and a pull-over and never stop smoking cigarettes. There she’d be, down by the garage talking to Bridger till I felt I had to Say Something.”
Carolus made sounds which he hoped suggested disapproval of Lily Wirral and sympathy with Mrs. Thump.
“I’m not one for a lot of tittle-tattle,” went on the housekeeper. “After all, we’ve got enough to put up with this with in this world, without making it worse. But when it came to her and this Bridger disappearing into the garage for half an hour on end, I couldn’t do anything but Speak. I told Mr. Wirral himself. I said I didn’t want to make more of it than it was, but I thought he ought to know.”
“How did he take it?”
“Well, I don’t know what he said to Mr. Paul,” said Mrs. Thump regretfully, “but he sacked young Bridger immediately. He didn’t like that, Bridger didn’t. Well, he had his room over the garage, and he made it ever so nice, and his food and everything. It was a very good job for him and he wasn’t pleased at losing it. But he didn’t know I’d Said Anything. He thought Mr. Wirral had seen for himself. He used the most horrible language about Mr. Wirral. I was quite surprised because he’d always seemed such a quiet, nice-behaved young man till then. But of course there was the Will.”
Another of Mrs. Thump’s thrown-away lines fell loudly.
“The Will?” queried Carolus obediently.
“Yes. Didn’t you know about that? Mr. Wirral had given us to understand—that’s me and Bridger, not the girls who Came and Went—that there would be something really handsome for us in his Will, if we were still in his service. I don’t know quite how much, but I know it was four figures. Well, Bridger knew he’d lost that. He turned quite nasty about it.”
“What’s happened to him?”
“He’s still in the town. He drives a van for the Co-op. I could tell you another thing. That was his day off, that last afternoon when Mr. Wirral was on the pier. I know because I saw him, all dressed up.”
“Surely he wasn’t on the pier that day?”
“I couldn’t say about that. I saw him on The Front. Would you excuse me a minute? I must just make a telephone call.”
Mrs. Thump hurried from the room, but when she returned a few minutes later she seemed a sour and dejected woman compared with her communicative self of a few moments ago.
“I don’t know,” she said ambiguously. “Sometimes you can’t do right, can you? It seems it doesn’t matter what you do; when it won’t come, it won’t. Well, is there anything else you want to know, because I’ve got my ironing to do?”
“No, thank you,” said Carolus. “You’ve been most kind and helpful.”
“I’m only too glad to tell you anything I can. I hope you get at the truth, whatever it is.”
“You still can’t remember what time you left the peer that day?” tried Carolus.
Mrs. Thump answered before he had finished speaking.
“No, I can’t,” she said decisively. “That’s one thing I can’t remember. It might have been any time.”
Carolus rose. His feet, he noticed, were on a thick bearskin rug in front of a fender like a row of polished railings. He suddenly founded the room and the whole large silent house about them almost unbearably oppressive. Everything he could see seemed both solid and ornate, like the Victorian era itself. He hurried through the hall to the stained-glass window of the front porch, in which a prim Bacchus was depicted with a head-dress of grapes but the smile of a kindly clergyman.
That reminded him. He fired a last shot.
“I believe you know a Mrs. Rowlands?”
Mrs. Thump stared at him.
“Whatever’s she got to do with it?” she asked.
“Nothing that I know of. But her husband works on the pier.”
“I don’t know where her husband works and I don’t care,” said Mrs. Thump unpleasantly. “He treats his poor wife something disgraceful because she comes to St. Winifred’s on Sundays, where I go, instead of being an Atheist like himself. Don’t talk to me about Mrs. Rowlands’s husband, because I don’t want to hear. You ask the Reverend Pickthorne about him. He’ll tell you what he is, trying to stop his wife and daughter coming to the Eleven O’Clock.”
“He doesn’t believe in orthodox religion,” smiled Carolus provocatively.
“Then it’s time he did,” said Mrs. Thump. “What would happen if we all thought like that? I’d like to know. On to his poor wife, morning, noon and night because she’s been brought up Church. He ought to be ashamed of himself. No one’s got any business to interfere with anyone else’s opinions, even if they are married. And a nicer woman than her you couldn’t meet. Ever so quiet. Wouldn’t say an unkind word about anyone.”
“Do you know their daughter?”
A half-smile appeared on Mrs. Thump’s rather sullen face.
“Glad?” she said. “I should think I do!”
As Carolus walked towards his car, he was surprised to hear her laughing.