Case for Sergeant Beef
MR. FLUSTING TALKS
Flipp had sobered up and had had a wash and shave before we arrived at “Woodlands”. Indeed, he looked a great deal fresher than Constable Watts-Dunton. He shewed little surprise or emotion as Chatto brought out the whole portentous formula, ending with its warning that anything he said might be used in evidence against him.
“I thought you suspected me,” he remarked dully.
Chatto had read out all three of the names he had used, and although he took no apparent notice of the Philipson and Flipp, he asked, rather anxiously I thought, why Chatto had called him Phelps.
“Perhaps you’ve forgotten that,” said Chatto calmly. “It was the name you used to sign the poison book in Shoulter’s shop.”
I was watching the wretched man intently and saw that this quiet statement had had its effect.
“I want to see my solicitor—Mr. Aston,” he said, and there was a slight trembling noticeable.
“You can telephone for him from the police-station,” conceded Chatto. “We’re taking you over to Ashley.”
Watts-Dunton brought his coat, and Flipp made a great point of locking up the house. He was accompanied from door to door after he had carefully shut the windows from the inside. It was without further conversation, however, that we left “Woodlands”.
That afternoon, in response to a telegram from Beef, there arrived at Barnford the last of the many people we had to meet in this case. Recalling it now I have to admit that I could see no point in sending for Mr. Flusting, that friend of Crackle’s who had been mentioned more than once in the course of our investigation. He had been quoted as a lifelong friend of the little watchmaker who had been a neighbour of his during all the years in which Chickle had built up his thriving business. But I could not see how he would throw any light either on the murder of Shoulter or on the death of Chickle himself. Beef, however, set great store on the talk he would have with Mr. Flusting, and even spoke of the “last link in the chain”.
He arrived at Barnford by the now fateful train, and Beef was on the station to meet him. He was a tall, thin, grey-haired man who wore old-fashioned rimless pince-nez, a black overcoat and a starched collar too large for his thin neck. His eyes were blue and rheumy and he spoke in a high-pitched voice which he attempted to modulate into a tone of solemnity in speaking of the dead man.
“Thought you ought to know at once,” said Beef as we walked away from the station.
Mr. Flusting’s next words surprised me.
“Suicide, I suppose?” he said. It was clear that he saw nothing inconsistent in this.
That’s what I think it is,” said Beef. “But the police have other ideas.”
“No, no. Suicide, I’m afraid. In fact, I will go so far as to say I saw it coming.”
“Did you indeed?”
“Yes. He has just been to see me, you know. Stayed a few days. He was very far from normal, Sergeant. Very far from it.”
Beef did not want to hurry Mr. Flusting into any sketchy talk, I thought, but was determined to have the whole story from him in detail.
“Suppose we go and have a cup of tea,” he suggested. “And you tell me what you can? You see, Mr. Flusting, I’m of the opinion that your knowledge of the dead man will be of the greatest assistance to us in clearing up the mystery surrounding these two deaths. I don’t know the police opinion on that, but I know mine. And if you would be so good as to tell us what you knew of Mr. Chickle, both in the past and more recently, it would be very valuable.”
“I’ll certainly tell you all I can,” replied Mr. Flusting. “But I have begun to wonder lately whether I really knew Chickle at all. There were depths in that man . . .”
“Not another word till you’ve had a cup of tea,” exclaimed Beef as we arrived at the Crown.
But the time came for Flusting to talk. He lit his pipe, looked weakly at the pair of us and began:
“I’ve known Wellington Chickle since he was a youth,” he announced, “and apprenticed to a watchmaker. And I don’t think that anyone else has known him at, all. There were two of him, you know, the bland and commonplace shopkeeper, and behind that facade a fiery and ambitious soul who was determined to leave his mark on the world. That is the thing you must understand about him—the key to the whole character of the man — he was determined to leave his mark on the world. It may seem odd if you think only of the chatty little man you probably knew, but remember I have seen behind all that. I have heard his deepest confidences. From the very first that was his resolve.”
“And how did he go about doing it?”
“For many years, oddly enough, in the most conventional way. He meant to build up a big business, make money and I suppose achieve success in the most ordinary manner. Perhaps he saw himself as a J.P., a Mayor, or a Member of Parliament, and in one of these offices making history. At any rate, for nearly all the years of our friendship he dedicated himself to increasing his business and making a fortune, and as you probably know he was successful in both. So successful that when the time came for him to sell his business and retire he was a rich man. I think one might say a very rich man. It was then that he gave me his first surprise.”
“What was that?” asked Beef.
“Well, I was waiting to see what he would do next. I knew that he must do something. He wasn’t old. He had a vigorous mind and body. It was the moment for him to put into practice those secretly nourished ambitions of his. I wondered whether he would start by buying a newspaper or a title. He had once confided in me in all solemnity that a teacher at his school had told him that he would never set the Thames on fire, and that he was going to shew him something that would astonish him. Now was the time. What form would it take?”
We both stared at Mr. Flusting as he asked this rhetorical question.
“To my amazement,” went on Mr. Chickle’s old friend, “he did nothing. After selling the business he moved into rooms in London and remained there, apparently in aimless contentment. I could not understand it. I even ventured to query this, but all I got was a series of mysterious nods and winks and hints that he had something up his sleeve. But I could not help wondering what that something might be. And as time went on and he made no move and seemed content to live the rest of his days as an obscure retired watchmaker, I was more and more puzzled.
“Then he gave me the biggest surprise of all. He announced that he had purchased a bungalow in the country and was going down there to live quietly and grow roses. I could not believe it. You must understand that to no one else would it seem strange, bat to me, who knew the inner secrets of Wellington Chickle, it was incredible. Frankly, I remonstrated. I asked him what had happened to all his ambitions, the determination he had long ago voiced to me to leave his mark on the world. All he did was to smile. ‘There are more ways than one of doing that,’ he said. I should see.
“What was I to think? Was he going to grow an immortal rose like the American station-master in Mrs. Miniver? Or was he, could he possibly be, writing a book? Had he some scheme of achieving undying fame like Gilbert White of Selborne? It was difficult to believe, for whatever else he was, he was not literary. I decided not to press him for information, but simply to wait and see what my peculiar little friend would do.
“For his first year here he seemed cheerful and busy enough, except when he heard that the man who had bought his business had dared to change its name. That upset him. After all, whatever he was planning now the only thing he had achieved was his name in two-foot gilt letters over a flourishing shop. And that they should be erased so soon, to make way for a stranger’s, really distressed him.
“However, it made the hints he gave me more frequent. There was something almost sly in the way he spoke of himself. And frankly for the first time I began to wonder whether my old friend could be considered quite sane. I had always thought his secret intention to astonish the world was a sort of idee fixe, you know, and dangerously near to a monomania, but now I considered the matter more seriously.
“Then came this murder down here which seemed to upset him altogether. I would never have believed he was human enough to feel it so deeply, and as far as I know he had never spoken to the victim. But from the very day after it he became a changed man, and when he came to stay with me last week I knew that in some way which I could not understand he was heartbroken. He told me, in so many words, that he had failed.”
“In what?” asked Beef.
“That he never explained. I was left to suppose that it was in Life, in Everything, and that something had just happened to make him realize it.”
“But it might have been in some particular thing?” queried Beef.
“It might have, but I can’t see in what. Unless he had really been writing a book and had realized that he could not finish it, or that no one would publish it. But I cannot describe to you the state of depression he was in while he was with me. I who knew him well had never seen him anything but cheerful. Complacent might be a better word. Or self-satisfied. But now he was another man. He spoke most bitterly, again and again reiterating that all his schemes had failed. And when I received your telegram this morning I was not in the least surprised. In fact, he had even hinted that he did not want to continue living.”
“Did he give you the impression of being afraid of something?” Beef asked.
“No. I can’t say he did. It was not fear. It was frustration. Anger, even. Disappointment. But I don’t think fear. Why? Was there anything in the manner of his death to suggest that? Or did he leave a note of any kind?”
Beef told him of the curt wording which had been on the paper affixed to his coat.
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Flusting. That sounds like him. He used the very phrase to me a dozen times. That is what he felt-that he had failed. No doubt we shall soon know exactly how.”
“No doubt we shall,” said Beef.
“You say the police think that it’s murder?”
“I believe so. They arrested the man they suspected of Shoulter’s murder and it seems they believe him to be guilty of both. But it’s only fair to say that they have scarcely begun investigating Mr. Chickle’s death. They may completely change their minds.”
“It was suicide, I feel sure,” said Mr. Flusting earnestly, his Adam’s apple jumping like a cork. “He was not himself, Sergeant Beef. Not in the least. I would even go so far as to use the word insane.”
For the first time Beef grinned.
“Would you now? That’s interesting.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Flusting, “I would. Or if not actually insane, certainly most abnormal. I feared it might come. Vaulting ambition, you know. I often think we more ordinary folk are lucky. We ask far less. We are more easily made up. That little old friend of mine had a tormented soul.”
I remembered the words afterwards. “A tormented soul.”
“Well,” said Beef, bringing our visitor to earth. “You’ll be wanted at the inquest, I expect.”
Mr. Flusting sighed.
“I suppose so,” he said.