Case for Sergeant Beef
MR. CHICKLE HEARD SHOTS
After tea Beef suddenly decided to call on Wellington Chickle and set off at a swinging pace towards “Labour’s End” while I told him about the inquest. It did not take us long to reach the house and we found ourselves on the doorstep under the scrutiny of Mrs. Pluck.
“I don’t know whether Mr. Chickle will see you,” she said. “He’s very upset by this nasty business. He’s not in just now, anyway.”
“When will he be back?” asked Beef.
“Well, he won’t be long. He’s having his afternoon stroll as usual.”
“Then we’ll wait.”
Mrs. Pluck seemed undecided.
“Mr. Chickle does not like me to refuse anyone to come in,” she explained. “But he’s been so upset since this happened that I don’t really think you ought to worry him. Such a tender-hearted old gentleman, it’s cut him to the quick, happening right on his doorstep as you might say. Couldn’t you ask me anything you want to know?”
“I’m afraid I must see Mr. Chickle,” said Beef.
“Then you’d better come in and wait. I know he’ll say I ought to have asked you, but I don’t like to think of him being more upset than what he is. You’d never believe a thing like this could make such a difference to a man. Before it happened he was as cheerful as you please and now you’d scarcely know him. I’m quite worried about him.”
She had shewn us into a comfortable book-lined room in which there was a bright fire.
“Better sit down, then,” she said. “He won’t be long.”
And she left us.
My eyes, wandering round the room, fell on something which made me give a cry of excitement.
“Look, Beef! What do you think of that?” And I pointed to the little table by the fire. On it, laid open at a page about half-way through the book, was a copy of Case with Ropes and Rings.* Beef stared at it with almost as much surprise as I had shewn.
“That’s interesting,” he said quietly and lapsed into thought.
“Don’t you tell me again that I don’t give you publicity. You’re known even in Barnford!”
But he was not listening. He had risen from his chair and was making a thorough investigation of the books on Mr. Chickle’s shelves. He went from row to row slowly and methodically until he had examined the lot.
“Yes,” he murmured absently. “Very interesting indeed.”
Just then the front door slammed and in a moment little Mr. Chickle was with us. While he was greeting Beef I examined him carefully. Small, grey-haired, with a high dome of forehead and trim country clothes, he looked just what he was—a retired watchmaker. He was smiling now, but looking at his pink face I searched for any sign of the “worry” that Mrs. Pluck had mentioned. There was a rather strained and furrowed look about him, but for all I knew that might be habitual. I decided that now at any rate, whatever he may have been before, he did not look a happy man.
“Delighted. Delighted,” he was saying smugly. “I know all about you, of course.” He nodded at the open copy of Case with Ropes and Rings. “Edith Shoulter told me she had engaged you. I was wondering when you’d come to call on me.”
Beef also looked down at the novel.
“Interested in crime?” he asked.
“The merest amateur,” beamed Mr. Chickle. “We old retired fellows want something to occupy our minds. Though I have my garden, of course.”
I may have been wrong, but I thought I detected some stress or effort behind this amiability. However, his words were friendly enough.
“What about some tea?” he asked.
“Just had ours,” said Beef.
“Sure? No? Then you won’t mind if I sip a cup while we’re chatting.”
“Did you attend the inquest to-day?” asked Beef.
“I did. And I must say I was surprised at the evidence. We had all taken it to be suicide, you know. One gathers that he had been a rather worthless fellow. When murder was proved so conclusively by the experts I was quite taken aback.”
“Experts can make mistakes,” said Beef.
“You incline to that view? Well, who knows? It may be that the police will revert to it, too.”
“Did you know the deceased well, Mr. Chickle?”
“Never met him before in my life,” said Chickle lightly, then stopped.
“Before what?” asked Beef so quickly and quietly that even I was surprised.
“Before . . . well, a manner of speaking, of course.” Chickle spoke almost as quickly and calmly as Beef had done. If the question had shaken him he soon recovered. “I haven’t met him now, I’m afraid, in any true sense. Just seen the poor fellow carried past on a stretcher with his head covered, and that from no nearer than my windows. A most distressing sight.”
“And Miss Shoulter?”
“Oh, very well. We are excellent neighbours—frequently in one another’s houses. A good and a plucky woman. Devoted to her dogs.”
“I believe you’re very good to dumb creatures, too, Mr. Chickle?”
“No more than most Englishmen, I believe.”
“Yet you once told Miss Shoulter that you were so afraid of hurting them that you disapproved of shooting.”
This time I am sure he was taken off his guard. I did not know what was implicit in the question to disturb him, but for the first time he was confused.
“I told her . . . Oh, yes. That’s perfectly accurate. It was when I first came here. I had heard about her kennels and thought she might be one of these animal cranks. You know, anti-vivisectionists and so on. And I did not wish to offend her susceptibilities. I have an almost morbid dislike of offending people. So I gave her the notion that my principles were the same as I supposed hers to be. When however she mentioned that she had a gun I realized that I need not be afraid of upsetting her, and admitted to my taste for shooting—the only sport I have ever much cared about.”
“Ah,” said Beef. “You don’t mind my asking questions that don’t always seem to make sense, do you, Mr. Chickle?”
“Oh, not in the least. Please ask anything you like. I must own that I cannot quite understand why you should take an interest in a remark made by me nearly a year ago to Edith Shoulter, but no doubt you have your reasons. We laymen must not expect to see into the trained mind, must we?”
Beef’s next question was as surprising to me as it was to Mr. Chickle.
“What made you come to Barnford?” he asked.
“Well, I was looking for a small country place and heard of this.”
“How did you hear of it?”
“Really! What possible relevance—”
“I’m sure you won’t mind answering.”
“Well, no, I don’t. As long as you’re not pulling my leg. As a matter of fact I just came down and found it.”
“What made you come here? Did you know someone here? Had you been here before? Or did someone write and tell you that this bungalow was vacant?”
“I had passed through here on a walking tour some years previously. I remembered it as a pleasant village. I came down, found the bungalow, and bought it.”
“I see. You employed a solicitor for the transaction, I suppose?”
“No. As a matter of fact I didn’t.”
“Don’t like solicitors perhaps?”
“Nothing of the sort. There was no need for a solicitor. The estate agents had all the documents as drawn up when the previous tenant purchased. Actually I have a great respect for the Law.”
“Know any local solicitors?” asked Beef.
“I know Mr. Aston who lives at Copling and has his office in Ashley. In fact he has just drawn up a new will for me. But aren’t we wandering from the point a little? I cannot see how all these quite personal questions have any bearing on poor Shoulter’s death. What I ask myself in that connection is what motive could anyone have? That would seem the salient point. I understood that the police always start with motive.”
“I think they do, generally,” Beef admitted. “So you came here to retire, Mr. Chickle?”
“I did indeed. After a long and obscure life as a tradesman—”
“I’m afraid so. Quite obscure. Why, the purchaser of my business . . .” A sudden angry flush lit Mr. Chickle’s face. The purchaser of my business has even changed the name of the shop.”
Once again Beef spoke his irritating thoughtful “Ah!” and for a while there was silence.
“Well,” said Mr. Chickle smiling, “this is the strangest questioning of a witness I can ever remember reading—even among your exploits!”
“Think so?” said Beef. “Then we’ll get back to the usual. The afternoon of the crime. Could you tell us how you spent it?”
“That’s more like it,” said Mr. Chickle. That’s the question I've been waiting for. I could certainly tell you. I did a little gardening, came in here and read or wrote for half an hour perhaps, and then at half past three—”
“Before that you heard two shots?”
Yes. In quick succession. At about a quarter past three. My housekeeper, Mrs. Pluck, knows the precise time, no doubt. Indeed, she was able to give it to the coroner. I cannot recall it to the minute. Say three-twenty.”
“I had just given Mrs. Pluck her little Christmas-box in fact. Poor woman, I’m afraid she’s a lonely soul. She seemed very grateful. We were standing here when we both heard those shots.”
“Any idea where they came from?”
“Fairly distant, I think.”
“Might have been from the spot where the body was found?”
“It might well have been.”
“Then I did another ten minutes in the garden and took my little stroll.”
“Take your gun?”
“Yes. As usual.”
“Would you mind telling us which way you went?”
“Certainly. Instead of going through the wood I skirted it and kept in the open. I followed right round the edge of it till I reached the drive going up to Flipp’s house, then returned. It was pretty rough going.”
“Meet anyone?” asked Beef.
“Only a hare. I let off both barrels at him but he got away.”
“That would have been nearly an hour after you’d started out?”
“Yes. I was on my way home.”
“What made you choose that direction, Mr. Chickle? I understand that you usually took the pathway through the wood.”
“Not usually. I often went that way to Miss Shoulter’s.”
“It has been remarked that the place where the murder was committed—”
“I still think it’s premature to call it murder,” interrupted Chickle.
“That that place is a favourite spot of yours. Several people have met you there.”
Mr. Chickle smiled.
“A convenient half-way resting point between my bungalow and Edith Shoulter’s.”
“Yes. So it would be. Now about this other shot or shots at five past six . . .”
“Shot or shots. That’s rather the point. I can’t be sure. I think it was two barrels fired simultaneously or almost simultaneously. But I can’t be certain of that, and nor can Mrs. Pluck. But it or they were certainly at five past six. I had just gone into the garden to bring in the tools I had been using when I heard them. I came straight in and remarked to Mrs. Pluck that someone must be poaching.”
“And where did it seem to you that the shot or shots came from?”
“Oh, in the wood. I can’t say where.”
“About the same distance as the shot at three-twenty?”
Both Beef and Chickle seemed quite exhausted by this long and searching dialogue. But, knowing something of the way in which Beef’s mind worked, I realized that he would not stop till he had asked every question he needed to ask, and gathered all the material he wanted. For all his seemingly haphazard methods, Beef had a curiously orderly mind.
“Now there are three people I’d like to ask you about,” said Beef. “And then I've done. First of all your housekeeper, Mrs. Pluck.”
“Came to me with excellent references about eight months back,” said Chickle. “A farmer’s daughter, I gather. Married a ne’er-do-well who left her with a small child. The girl is married now and comes occasionally to see her mother. Mrs. Pluck was ten years housekeeper at Kingmead, the historic mansion on the other side of Ashley. Sir Gerald Cocker’s place. She left it and I was lucky enough to get her because she wanted a quiet situation. She did not mind the work, but was tired of the worry and responsibility. She’s a thoroughly reliable woman, most honest and satisfactory. A good cook, a little over-punctual, perhaps, with an eye that never leaves the clock, but altogether what is called a treasure.”
“Did she know Shoulter?”
“I should think it’s most unlikely. I never heard her mention him.”
“Good. Now what about Flipp?”
“I know very little about him. I understand that he was a friend of the Shoulters before coming here. He goes to London about twice a week. A somewhat coarse and crude person, I find.”
“Do you know whether he saw much of Shoulter?”
“I've never seen them together.”
“Finally a farmer called Bridge.”
“A very violent young man!” exclaimed the benevolent Mr. Chickle with unexpected emphasis. “Very violent. I had a most acrimonious argument with him about a month ago. Some of his land adjoins my shooting rights and he accused me of poaching.”
“Did he threaten you?”
Mr. Chickle smiled.
“He said he’d see me in hell, if that’s a threat.”
Beef suddenly stood up. He did not thank our host or apologize for his catechism.
“That’s all,” he said as he snapped his notebook to.
“I hope I’ve been of some use,” said Mr. Chickle.
“I’m sure you have,” I hastened to put in. For even if there was anything suspicious about him, I saw no point in letting him see it.
“I wonder,” said Beef, “if this would be a convenient time for us to have a chat with Mrs. Pluck?”
Chickle looked at his watch.
“Five-thirty,” he said doubtfully, “and I have dinner at eight. I hope you won’t keep her too long?”
“I don’t think so,” said Beef. “Perhaps we could go out to the kitchen?”
“Yes. Only I must ask you to finish by six-thirty at the latest. There’s nothing worse than hurried cooking.”
* Case with Ropes and Rings. The Story of Sergeant Beef’s Fifth Case. (Ivor Nicholson and Watson.)