Case for Sergeant Beef
THE MARRIAGE REGISTER
I asked Beef what he thought he had gained by the interview, and he said genially that he had got the one piece of information he required.
“Tomorrow,” he added, “we go to Pittenden.”
So that was it. Beef had hit on my idea and was going to get confirmation of the fact that Shoulter was Mrs. Pluck’s first husband. I smiled to myself to think that I had forestalled him, but said nothing except that I would accompany him next day.
We had to go on a slow local train and did not reach Pittenden, a small country town, until about noon. Beef thereupon announced that we should make for the Coach and Horses.
“Couldn’t we just for once keep out of pubs?” I suggested coldly. “I really get rather tired of this perpetual beer-swilling.”
“You can have cider then,” said Beef. “Where else do you think we can go to find out what we want? There’s only two places for gossip—the pub and the church. And we’ve had enough of parsons for this case.”
We entered the public bar and took our seats quietly at a deal table next to an elderly man who eyed us curiously. Beef wasted no time. If there is one thing in which he is expert it is turning the conversation in a bar to the matter that interests him most.
“Cold,” was his opening.
“Bitter,” returned the old man, referring to the weather and not to his drink.
“Been a hard winter,” continued Beef, who knew the dangers of impatience.
“It has. You come a long way?”
“London,” said Beef.
“In a way.”
“I’m not a traveller,” replied Beef. “Family business.”
It was clear that the man’s curiosity was aroused.
“Pittenden family?” he asked after a pause.
“It was,” said Beef. “Before your time, I expect.”
The man smiled at that.
“Before my time, eh? Must be a hell of a long way back then. I was born here and so was my father and grandfather. Don’t know any further back than that.”
“Ah,” said Beef, and drank his beer, leaving the next attack to the stranger.
“Were you born in Pittenden?” the latter asked.
“Relations this way perhaps?”
“Supposed to of. But I don’t rightly know the name. I’ve heard they’ve died out now. Farmers.”
“Farmers, were they?”
“That’s what I’ve heard. There was a woman of about my age was the daughter.”
Beef’s manner suggested that every scrap of information was being dragged from him against his will, and this simple strategy seemed to inspire the stranger into efforts of concentration and memory.
“Know anything about them?”
“This woman I was speaking of got married down here. Matter of about twenty years ago. Had a little girl, too. But the fellow was no good and left her.”
“Twenty years ago?”
“I don’t know who that could have been.”
“Farmers,” prompted Beef. “Not so long after the last war.”
“Only daughter, was she?”
“Couldn’t say,” said Beef, and appeared to have dismissed the matter from his mind as he rose to order three more drinks.
“Funny I can’t think of that,” said the stranger.
“Thought it might be before your time,” mumbled Beef almost rudely. Then he turned to me and began a ridiculous conversation about the oil-painting on the wall, a subject on which he is particularly ignorant.
Suddenly there was a cry from the other man.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “Old Will Thorogood’s daughter. Married a London chap who went off and left her.”
“Yes. Used to have Rossback Farm. She was his only daughter, too. This chap came down here travelling in patent medicines, I believe. I can’t remember his name. Fell in with old Thorogood’s daughter and married her a month later. Everyone was surprised at the time because she was no beauty and no longer a girl.”
“What did she look like?” asked Beef.
The other laughed.
“More like a man than a woman, she was. Well, she’d worked on a farm since she was a kid. They say she could plough a field with anyone, but I don’t know if that’s true. I tell you what she was though — a wonderful housekeeper for the old man. Looked after him like a mother. That’s why the old fellow didn’t like it when she married this London chap.
“But that didn’t last long. Soon as the baby was born he went off and left her, and she went back to her father. The old man wasn’t doing too well—it was a bad time for small farms—and he was glad to have her. Then a couple of years later he died and Rossback Farm had to be sold up. There wasn’t much left for this daughter we were speaking of and she went off into service somewhere and took the little girl with her. I never heard of her again.”
“Who was her mother then?” asked Beef idly.
“Old Thorogood married one of the Plucks from Leckley way. But she died before all this happened.”
Neither of us turned a hair at the mention of the name for which we had been listening. I saw my little theory being confirmed at every step. After Shoulter had left her and her father had died she had chosen her mother’s maiden name under which to make a new start.
“D’you happen to remember where they were married?” persisted Beef. “I mean this London chap and Miss Thorogood that was?”
“Yes. Parish church. I remember the wedding. Well, there’s a good many that would. She looked a bit out of place in a wedding dress. Proper farm girl, she was.”
As artfully as Beef had turned the conversation in this direction he now diverted it to other matters. And a few minutes later we went through into a gloomy apartment which had “Commercial Room” on the door and sat down to lunch.
“Means another parson, after all,” said Beef. “We shall have to go and look at the register.”
I sighed. But it was obvious within a few moments of meeting Prebendary Boxe, the Rector of Pittenden, that he was not going to provide me with a touch of minor characterization, comic or otherwise. He was a keen-faced businesslike man who asked what he could do for us in a tone that implied that whatever it was he had not time to do it. Beef haltingly asked if he might refer to the register, and almost before he had finished speaking the rector nodded.
“My gardener will take you down. He’s my verger as well, and has the keys. You may make a small contribution to the Church Expenses Fund to repay his trouble. You’ll find the box in the south transept. Good afternoon.”
It took us half an hour to find what we wanted, for in the years following the last war the marriage and giving in marriage in Pittenden seemed to have been considerable. When at last we came on the entry we sought I could not repress a cry of triumph. For it was quite clear that the man who had married Hester Thorogood had been none other than Ronald Shoulter.
When he had returned the register to the locked cupboard the verger-gardener asked Beef whether the rector had told him to put a contribution in the Church Expenses box.
“You can give it to me,” he pointed out. “I’ll pop it in. Save you time.”
Beef complied and we left him to lock up.
As we returned to the station I informed Beef that this had been my theory from the first. I told him I had suspected the truth from the first minute that I had heard that Mrs. Pluck had been deserted by her husband.
“You don’t say?” retorted Beef, with his heaviest sarcasm. I might have known that he would not like his own credit being shared.
He adopted a somewhat stern demeanour when, later that evening, we again called at Mr. Chickle’s house to see Mrs. Pluck. The old gentleman was still away, though he was expected to return on the following morning. Mrs. Pluck grudgingly asked us in.
“I been to Pittenden,” announced Beef.
Still the woman tried to keep up her defensive shield of rudeness and indifference. Her face did not change at the mention of Pittenden.
“I’m sure I don’t care where you’ve been,” she said.
“I’ve seen the register in the parish church.”
Now she was staring at him.
“So you know?” she gasped.
“I know that Shoulter was your husband.”
Just as once before we had found that behind her surliness were floods of loquacity which once released were hard to check, so we found ourselves now listening to a long disjointed colloquy.
“Well, it’s true. I did marry him. But I never had anything to do with his murder, though I wouldn’t have been sorry at that if you hadn’t started nosing round and finding out who he was. Now I suppose my daughter’ll get to hear of it and it’s a shame, because she’s no idea but what her father’s dead. He was always a dirty rotter and what I married him for I can’t think. It’s plain why he married me—because he thought it was a nice little farm property for him to come into and live comfortable. Then, when he found out that the place was mortgaged and my father in a bad way and the little girl born, he went off. They told me I ought to have gone after him for the separation and put his picture in the newspapers and that, to find out where he was, but I wouldn’t do that. Good riddance, I said, and knew I could manage as long as I didn’t see his wicked face again. And I might never have done if I hadn’t come to work here and heard the name Shoulter, and wondered if it was him. Then one day I ran into him in Barnford and he knew me at once, and after that there was no peace at all. He found out about Mabel getting married and everything, and started wanting money and saying if I didn’t give it him he’d go over and tell her who he was, and that would have upset everything. I gave him what I had, and of course he wanted more. That’s what I had to see Mabel about on Christmas Eve. I shall never forget young Ribbon coming in and saying he was lying dead up the footpath. I won’t say I was sorry because I wasn’t. It was a weight off my mind. And I’d never told anyone he was my husband and never thought you’d come along and find out and think I’d murdered him.”
“If you didn’t,” said Beef, “who did?”
“That’s what I’ve been asking myself ever since I heard it was murder and not suicide. Well, I never thought it was suicide, really. He wasn’t the kind for that. Thought too much about himself.”
“Do you think he was getting money from anyone else?”
“I don’t see how he could have been, down here anyway. Unless his poor sister used to give him anything, which I doubt.”
“Did he have anything to do with Mr. Chickle?”
“So far as I know they never met.”
Beef seemed lost in thought. At last he spoke.
“I can’t see why you don’t tell your daughter and son-in-law the whole thing,” he said at last. “Nice young chap. He’d understand all right. And so would she.”
Mrs. Pluck made no answer to that, but she did concede before we left her that she “supposed we had our job to do,” and I had the impression that she was happier for having got the story of her marriage off her chest. But that, I reflected, did not make her innocent.
I heartily agreed.