Death of Cold
Soon after Mr. Wirral’s body was found, Jack Fyrth came to see Carolus Deene.
“Do you think it was suicide?” he asked at once.
“No,” said Carolus. “But, then, I don’t know anything about it. I only feel that the man I met that morning with you was very unlikely to commit suicide a few hours later.”
“That’s what I feel. I suppose we shall know more after the post-mortem.”
“Perhaps,” said Carolus. “I don’t know much about the effect of salt water and so on. I believe very detailed studies have been made in the subject. An expert can tell almost as much from a body which has been in the sea for a time as from a body only recently dead. We may learn how your father-in-law died.”
“Greta’s still terribly upset about it,” said Jack Fyrth, “though in a way it has been almost a relief. All that time without knowing anything was getting her down.”
“Yes. Nothing is much more disturbing that the disappearance of someone—particularly in circumstances like that. There he was, a cheerful, zestful man, enjoying himself in his own way. Plenty of friends. Plenty of money. Plenty of leisure to indulge his favourite pastime. At one moment he is sitting by his rod chatting with anyone who comes along, in the next he is gone, vanished into thin air, and nobody has seen him go. Nobody, at least, who is willing to come forward. And he is never seen alive again. I can quite understand how your wife must feel, and you, too.”
“She’s already dead set against the idea of suicide.”
“Oh. What does she think, then?”
“Some sort of accident is all we can suppose. Even that seems unlikely. He wasn’t a man to have an accident.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I wonder whether you would come out to our shack, Deene? Greta would like to have a chat with someone new about this. She and I have about exhausted our ideas. Since she has been back from the nursing home we’ve talked about very little else—except the offspring, of course.”
“Be delighted to.”
“We could give you some sort of meal. We’ve got a crone who cycles out and does for us. But it will have to be a sort of high tea, because she’s off like a flash at seven every evening.”
“Splendid,” said Carolus. “High teas go with the seaside.”
Next evening Carolus drove out to the old Coastguards’ Cottage by a narrow road which ran between stretches of rich pasture-land. The Fyrths’ home was only a mile from the edge of Oldhaven, but the ground on which it was built was deemed unsuitable for ‘development’ and been left to the farmer who owned it for grazing. There was no coastal road and the lane by which the cottage was reached petered out on the foreshore. The only house within a quarter of a mile of the cottage was the farmhouse itself, which stood among barns and haystacks a few hundred yards away.
Jack Fyrth was waiting for him in the road, having seen Carolus’s Bentley Continental on its way across the pasture-land. The car looked a little out of place as it stood on the shingly surface outside the cottage.
“Sorry about that,” said Carolus.
“Very ostentatious,” grinned Jack, “but I suppose you can’t help it. You don’t keep a small car for use when you call on your poorer friends.”
They stood looking out to sea and to a rather lurid sunset which rimmed its surface. Behind them a cowman was calling across the field with the traditional rhythm, “Come along, curp. Curp, curp, come along curp.” It was very placid and the sea itself seemed almost still.
“No electricity or gas,” remarked Jack. “We manage with paraffin and coal. But we have water laid on from the farm—which is, after all, the main thing. Mind your head as you come in.”
They stooped and entered the little cottage, which was comfortably but very simply furnished.
“Greta’s upstairs with the infant,” said Jack as he poured out drinks. “I’m afraid we shall have to eat almost immediately because the crone won’t stay a moment after seven.”
Greta Fyrth came down and Carolus was introduced. She was a blonde, very good-looking girl with brisk, decisive movements. She spoke in a clear, pleasant voice and had an unprovincial air. Carolus liked her at once.
It was not until an hour later, when they had eaten an excellent meal, including a large dish of mushrooms gathered in the plushy meadows round them, that the late Mayor of Oldhaven was mentioned. ‘The crone’ had left by now and they were in the tiny sitting-room drinking coffee.
“What do you think about it, Mr. Deene? I’ve read your book on the crimes of history and I want your opinion on this. Do you think Dad committed suicide?”
“Darling, how can you expect Carolus to have an opinion yet?” asked Jack.
“I’ve got just the sort of opinion any man would have met your father,” said Carolus. “I’ve told Jack I just don’t think it’s likely.”
“It’s impossible,” said Greta. “Quite impossible. He enjoyed every minute of his life.”
“He certainly gave that impression.”
“Then what was it, Mr. Deene? How can he have died?”
Carolus looked at Greta Firth as though wondering how much her courage would stand. Then he spoke slowly and quite distinctly.
“If it wasn’t suicide,” he said, “it was of course one of two things, accident or murder.”
It was the first time the word had been used, and it dropped with a thud, like a soft, heavy thing, among them.
“Yes, I see that,” said Greta calmly. “Accident or murder. There can be nothing else.”
“We must wait for the post-mortem and the inquest,” said Jack. “We can’t even make a guess till then.”
“I can,” said Greta clearly. “I can make a guess without knowing anything about the post-mortem.”
As Carolus drove home through the autumnal starlight he saw her again, the pale face a little flushed, but firmness and courage very apparent in her and she spoke of the tragedy. He felt a new interest in the whole affair.
They had not many days to wait for the result of the post-mortem. It was very detailed. It left no room for doubt on one score. Mr. Wirral had been drowned. No trace of any unusual substance had been found in the intestines and no mark of any kind of violence. He had not even been struck before his body was immersed, it seemed. It was as though he gone swimming in his clothes and been carried out to sea. Or as if he had deliberately dived into the water and swum towards oblivion. There was nothing whatever to suggest anything else.
Expert opinion was given on matters of tides and currents, and these shewed that the place in which the body was found was consistent with Mr. Wirral having entered the water from Oldhaven pier on the night of September 10th, the date on which he had disappeared. The condition of the body was also consistent with this. Not a word was said or could be said to break this harmony of opinion.
The coroner seemed perfectly satisfied. He spoke with some feeling of the tragedy, sympathising with the bereaved family. He paid tribute to the dead man’s work for Oldhaven. He regretted that there should be a certain mystery about what he called ‘circumstances of Mr. Wirral’s demise’. There was virtually no evidence to throw light of these. It was a mystery which probably would never be solved. Mr. Wirral might perhaps have gone down to one of the lower landing-stages of the pier, then at water level, and there have slipped and fallen into the water. Even this was an unsatisfactory suggestion, for the Mayor was known to be a good swimmer and no very strong current was running, so that he should have been able to save himself quite easily. A heart attack? But his doctor could give no support to this suggestion. There was certainly, however, no reason to suspect foul play of any kind. The verdict was Found Drowned.
It was soon learned that the police had no further interest in the case. Accident or suicide were the sole alternatives, and neither concerned them now. The disappearance of the Mayor of Oldhaven had been explained as far as it ever would be, it was said, and the sooner it was forgotten the better. Oldhaven had to compete with other holiday resorts next year in attracting people from the inland cities, and it would not be helped by much talk of a public tragedy.
Sunlight was the keynote of Oldhaven’s publicity drive, sunlight on the golden sands, and the ugly little picture of a corpse washed up to break the clean surface of a yellow playground was thought to be very much out of place, particularly when the corpse was that of the town’s Mayor.
The Chief Constable, a retired army officer with an interest in the Aberdare Hotel, quickly perceived that no good purpose would be served by any further tinkering with the matter and gave orders accordingly.
“Old Wirral’s dead,” he said to his Chief Inspector, “and there’s an end of it. We know he wasn’t murdered or the surgeons would have found some trace of it. That lets us out. I don’t want any more time wasted in this matter. The sooner the newspapers forget it the better.”
“Yes, sir. There’s been nothing about it in the Evening Call for two nights now.”
“So I’ve noticed. It was about time they dropped it. How can Oldhaven expect visitors if it’s going to have bodies washed up on the beach every day? People don’t want their children finding things like that when they go out to build sandcastles.”
“Quite, sir,” said the Chief Inspector patiently.
“Nothing empties the hotel so quickly,” grumbled the Chief Constable. “One would have thought Wirral would have remembered that before he did for himself in that way. If he wanted to commit suicide, why couldn’t he do it quietly and decently in his own home? All this is has been most damaging to the town.”
“I understand the pier receipts have gone up,” said the Chief Inspector consolingly.
“Pier receipts! But we shall have the best hotels empty before Christmas if we’re not careful. At any rate, Inspector, I want no more of it. Let the thing die out and be forgotten as quickly as possible. Put Cotter and Hawkins back on public morality. Tell them to watch the concert party. I’m told some of the humour in that show is shocking. Gives the town a bad name. They should keep an eye on the beaches, too, parks, public lavatories, shelters on the promenade, everywhere. Make the place a model seaside town. That’s what brings visitors. Not waste their time dabbling in murder. There’s nothing more in Wirral’s case to be investigated.”
But Carolus Deene held a different opinion. “If you really want me to do so,” he said to Jack and Greta Fyrth, “I’ll do my best to find out what really did happen. But I warn you, it may stir up quite a lot of slime. With all respect your father, Mrs. Fyrth, you never know what you may find when you start poking about in a man’s private life, as I shall have to do here.”
I quite understand,” said Greta. “I’m not afraid.”
“And of course I may never know the truth. I don’t think it will be easy to learn anything. The local police will do everything they can keep me out of it. They dropped the whole thing, and they’ll hate an amateur messing round.”
“Don’t get yourself into any trouble,” said Jack Fyrth.
“I like trouble,” replied Carolus truthfully.