Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Eight

Case for Sergeant Beef


“I first began to take an interest in Mr. Wellington Chickle,” announced Beef portentously, “when I found him reading one of Townsend’s books.  I thought there must be something funny about a man that would do that for pleasure.  And when I examined his library and found that every book in it was about crime I was certain that I was on to something.  Not just crime novels, mind you, but legal books and technical books that could only be of interest, anyone would think, to a detective, a criminal lawyer, or a murderer.”
Beef paused and stared at each of us in turn, as though to mark the effect of his words.  On Chatto this was practically nil.  I felt a little pardonable irritation.
“Then there was his name.  That struck me as peculiar.  I mean, you just fancy going through life with a name like that.  Think of the kids at school.  And the fellows you’d meet later.  Nothing short of cruel to send a lad through life with a label tagged on to him that was enough to make a laughing-stock of him.  You never know what effect it will have either.  I don’t go much on psychology and that, but if half of what I’ve read is true, the name Wellington Chickle’s enough to give a man a neurosis, a couple of fixations, and half a dozen complexes.  And in this case it worked out a treat.
“All the same, though I noticed these two things about Mr. Chickle, and a lot more later which I’ll tell you about, all of which seemed to point to him in connexion with the crime, I was stumped for one thing.  And that was a thing which you had very strongly for your suspect, Inspector.  A motive.  I could not see what possible reason this little man with the funny name could have for bumping off a fellow who, to the best of my knowledge and belief, was a complete stranger to him.  Not, that is, until yesterday, when I met his lifelong friend and heard a lot about him which I’d only suspected before.  He had a motive, but it was one of the queerest ones I’ve ever heard for a crime.”
Beef became irritatingly silent till Chatto prompted him.
“Have you ever heard of Art for Art’s sake?” Beef went on at last.  “Well, that’s what Wellington Chickle’s idea was—murder for murder’s sake.  What he wanted to do was to kill someone.  No one in particular.  Just anyone.  You heard what Flusting said?  He meant to leave his mark on the world.  And into his distorted little mind had come the idea that the surest way to do this was to commit a murder.  Madness?  Well, yes, if you like.  But to my mind anyone who wants to leave his mark on the world’s a madman, however he proposes to do it.  This was just worse than others.
“That’s where Flusting’s story was valuable.  I could not see that Chickle could have had any reason for planning Shoulter’s death.  And the answer was that he had not.  He hadn’t planned Shoulter’s death, but the death of the first man who came down that path that afternoon.  But let’s get back to the beginning and see what he did plan, and how it all happened.
“The key to the whole thing is that Chickle decided, I think more than a year ago, to commit a murder.  You must give me that or else what I’m going to tell you doesn’t mean anything.  He had retired from business with a nice bit of money to last him the rest of his days.  And he wanted to do something that would have made a name for him.  He might have gone into politics and no harm done.  Or he might have took up some hobby and got himself famous.  Instead of that he decided to go in for murder.  Well, tastes differ.  One man’s drink is another man’s poison, as you might well say.
“He admitted to me that he’d been down to Barnford years ago and probably remembered that footpath through the woods as a likely place.  He soon found the ideal spot, but what does the crazy little fellow do but start practising—dodging down behind the fallen tree and that and looking a proper fool when the parson comes on him at his tricks, besides putting ideas into Flipp’s head.  But he hasn’t yet thought out how he’ll do it and he’s just playing with the idea of a gun when Miss Shoulter asks him slap out if he likes shooting, and he’s told a lie before he knows where he is.  He wasn’t very clever, really, you know.  Thought he was, no doubt.  Big ideas of himself as a murderer who would never be found out.  But he made some stupid slips.
“Then he came round to the idea of a gun, rented the bit of shooting in Deadman’s Wood, and made a habit of walking about there with a twelve-bore.  His reason was obvious.  When the day came and he used his gun, if he was seen it would be no more than his everyday habit.  No one would think nothing about it.
“I think he made a mistake, just as you think Flipp made a mistake, in planning to make it look like suicide.  That was just adding complications where none were needed.  If he had just shot his man, any man, and relied on the absolute absence of any motive to clear him, and not started larking about with red tape and that, he’d have been better off.  Because as soon as he decided to make it look like suicide he was up against the problem of a gun.  He could not leave his own gun beside the dead man.  So he decided to pinch that old one of Edith Shoulter’s which always stood in a corner of the hall.  Wasn’t difficult, of course.  Since he’d got everyone in the habit of seeing him with a gun.  All he had to do was to go to the house one day without one and come away with it.  Which he did.
“Then he would need a cord of some kind with which the dead man would have been supposed to have pulled the trigger of the gun with his foot—the usual method of suicides who shoot themselves.  He was careful enough to realize that it was just such a thing as a piece of cord that gives murderers away, so he hit on the idea of red tape and stole a spool of it from the nearest lawyer’s office.
“Finally there was a shot which had to be heard when he had a clear alibi.  The shot which was actually to kill his man was easy enough, he would innocently say that he had taken a pot at a rabbit.  But the shot that was to be supposed to be the fatal one was a different matter.  He had to fix that.  And it was only luck, really, that I got on to the way he done that—just young Bridge happening to notice him tying his garden line on to a line going off into the wood, and Mrs. Pluck mentioning that he was out on the lawn getting in his measuring line when she heard the shot at six-fifteen.  You notice, too, that whereas Chickle spoke of it as far off in the wood, she was positive it was close at hand.  And Edith Shoulter who heard the other shots never noticed this one at all, so far from her house was it.  In fact it was in the tree which the Scouts found.
“But there was what seemed like some luck with Chickle, too, during the days in which he was preparing for his crime.  That pair of shoes of Edith Shoulter’s which she sent to the Jumble Sale.  He seized that opportunity at once.  I was certain it was he who had worn the shoes, because Mrs. Pluck noticed the change in him from the time he came in from his walk that day.  He had obviously had the shock.  Yet none of his footprints approached the clearing.  Even if he wasn’t guilty, how could he have known that there was anything wrong if he hadn’t worn those shoes to go to the clearing?  And we know that they had passed into his possession.  This was later confirmed when I told him that the Boy Scouts were going to search the woods next day and he went out to recover the shoes from their hiding-place and tried to drop them out of sight when he saw us approaching.  When he had had time to realize that I knew what he was carrying, he told another lie and said that they were an interesting find of his by the side of the path during his evening constitutional—at nearly midnight on a dirty wet night.
“It was pretty carefully planned, wasn’t it?” said Beef, as though Wellington Chickle’s preparations were a matter for his, Beef’s, personal pride.
“M’m,” said Chatto.
“You see your theory doesn’t really, account for a good many things, does it?”
“What do you expect me to do then?” asked Chatto.  “Release Flipp, or charge him with the murder of his wife, and pin the murder of Shoulter on Chickle?”
Beef suddenly stood up and answered with all the emphasis he could command.
“Not without you want to make the biggest bloomer ever you made in your life!” he almost shouted.
“But you’ve just been proving Chickle’s guilt. . . .”
“I’ve just been proving that Chickle set out that afternoon to commit a murder.  And I still say so.  The nasty, half-crazy, conceited little jack-in-the-box meant to kill the first person as he came down that footpath.  There was only one thing stopped him.”
“And that?”
“It had been done already, see?  He’d come on a real murder.  I was almost going to say a man’s murder.  A murder which had had a motive to it and been done against a blackmailer by his victim.  As he walked up the path he came smack on the body of Shoulter whom Flipp had killed half an hour before.”
“So I was right,” gasped Chatto.
“Of course you was right in thinking Flipp had done it.  Only you’d got the rest of it boxed up.  When Chickle saw that, and right in the very spot where he had been going to do it, it gave him a nasty turn.  For one thing he didn’t know but what he might be suspected more when he hadn’t done it than when he had.  And he decided to carry out his original plan and fix up a suicide.  As he had planned it he no doubt meant to get his victim near his gun-barrel by some trick, so that no expert in the world couldn’t have told but what the dead man hadn’t leaned over his own gun.  He could only hope that the real murderer had done the same.  By the look of what was left of Shoulter’s head, he certainly had.  Anyway he chanced it.  He dragged the body to the fallen log and carried out his plan with the gun he had taken from Edith Shoulter and the tape he’d got from Aston’s office, fired off the gun and went home to tea.  At least, he’d said to himself, it was a stranger.  You can imagine what a shock it was to him that evening when young Jack Ribbon came in and said it was Edith Shoulter’s brother.  Of course he’d never seen him, but it brought the thing rather to his doorstep.”
I put in a question.
“What makes you so sure of this?” I asked Beef.  “How can you tell for certain that it wasn’t Chickle who committed the murder as well as faking the suicide?”
“Times, for one thing.  Bridge saw Flipp at the clearing at about three to three-fifteen.  He passed Shoulter a few minutes later and heard a shot, presumably from the clearing, a few minutes later still.  If that wasn’t the shot which killed Shoulter it means that Shoulter sat waiting at the clearing for an hour till Chickle came to shoot him at four-fifteen.  And that’s silly.  There were only three pairs of shots.  Those by which Shoulter was murdered at three-fifteen say, those by which the gun was made to look as though it had been used for suicide at about four-fifteen or four-thirty, and those which we know came from Chickle’s contrivance in the tree soon after six.  Now when the first shots were fired Chickle was still in his garden.  Bridge saw him there.  So he could not have done it.  Simple, isn’t it?
“Besides, there’s another matter.  From that afternoon onwards Chickle became depressed, and frequently said that he had ‘failed’.  Why?  Precisely because he had failed.  He found he could not even commit a murder.  It smashed his rotten little ego altogether, until at last he wrote I have failed on a piece of paper and hanged himself in Flipp’s stables.  Flipp’s, mind you.  Flipp was the man the police suspected, the man whom Chickle either knew or guessed to be guilty, and therefore the man who had done Chickle out of his murder and the man whom he hated most.  So if he could do him a bit of harm he wanted to.  ‘I’m going to Mr. Flipp’s’, he told his housekeeper twice, and went up there.
“It’s imagination you need, Townsend,” went on Beef as he eyed me solemnly.  “Imagination.  You’ve got to be able to put yourself even in the place of a little rat like Chickle if you want to know what he’ll do next.  It’s no easy task sometimes.  But it’s very often how I work my cases out.  Imagination and plenty of common sense, and you can’t go far wrong in detection.”
There was another long silence, which Beef at last broke.
“Quite satisfied?” he asked us.
Chatto for his part said frankly that Beef had done a fine piece of work.  I was less easily pleased.
“It’s all very well,” I grumbled.  “But you know what’s expected of you—a big surprise in the last chapter.  I can see that you’ve done well in tumbling to Wellington Chickle, but when all’s said and done, whom do you point out as the guilty man?  The one the police have suspected all along!”
Beef grinned.
“Well?” he said.  “You wanted a surprise, didn’t you?  And I don’t know what this is, if it isn’t one.  The police ‘suspect’ guilty!  It’s never been known to happen before in all the history of detective fiction.  He’s the one man that the most hardened reader never suspects.  You’re safe this time, my lad.  You write it up and see.”
He laboriously stood up and stretched himself.
“Well, I don’t know about, you gentlemen,” he said.  “But I’m going to have a tumble down the sink.  I think I’ve deserved it.  Four pints please, Mr. Bristling.”
“None for me, thanks,” said Constable Watts-Dunton primly.
“That’s all right then,” said Beef irrepressibly.  “I can manage yours.  Cheer-o, everyone.”
With an expert fist he tilted his tankard.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Seven

Case for Sergeant Beef


That evening we held the last conference in what was called in the Press the “Deadman’s Wood Murder Case”.
Chatto, very pleased with himself and twinkling with good humour, told us that since Beef had given him more than one piece of valuable information, he was going to let him in on the case against Flipp as the police had formulated it.  As he outlined it to us in the little back parlour of the Crown, where so much had come to light during our investigations, I could not help feeling the strength of it.  I was convinced that whatever Beef might have up his sleeve there was little doubt that Flipp would hang.
“I’m not going over the murder of his wife and I don’t know what view the prosecuting counsel will take of that,” said Chatto.  “Nor am I going to try to prove Flipp guilty of murdering Chickle—though personally I believe he did so—for the simple reason that we have not got enough evidence yet.  I’m going to concentrate on the murder of Shoulter, about which I cannot see that there can be any doubt at all.  If I prove that, the murder of his wife goes with it, as far as I can see, and it’s more than likely that the murder of Chickle follows.
“First of all, what brought Flipp to live at Barnford?  The Shoulters.  Then either he was friendly with Shoulter or, as we maintain, he was being blackmailed by him.  The latter is virtually a certainty, and I don’t think that Flipp himself will deny it, though he will probably maintain that he never administered poison to his wife but was being blackmailed by Shoulter because he had purchased morphine at that time and was afraid that if this were known a case would be made against him.  At all events there was the poison book with his signature hidden in Shoulter’s room, there were the withdrawals of money from his account in notes of small denominations, withdrawals which were made before Shoulter’s visits to Barnford, and his calls on Flipp after dark.  Surely very little doubt about the blackmail?”
“Very little,” conceded Beef.
“Right.  Then we have this powerful man of violent temper who had already, we believe, despatched one human being who stood in his way, being bled by a drunken ne’er-do-well who was in all probability the only man who had the information on which Flipp was being blackmailed.  The setup is pretty plain, isn’t it?  Moreover Flipp had a gun and cartridges of a type used by half a dozen people in the neighbourhood; Flipp knew that Shoulter was coming down for Christmas and would walk alone through Deadman’s Wood.  What could be more obvious?
“What is more, Flipp knew that there were at least two people in Barnford on whom suspicion might fall, and there was a very good chance of at least one of them not having an alibi that afternoon.  There was the retired watchmaker, Chickle, and the hot-tempered young farmer, Joe Bridge.  Now he himself had noticed and called attention to the fact that little Chickle was very fond of a particular spot on the footpath through the woods which Shoulter would have to pass.  Why not, then, lay in wait for him there?  If Shoulter was shot in a place which Chickle, in Mr. Townsend’s word, haunted, and Chickle was known to carry such a gun as Shoulter was shot with, there was a reasonable chance of Chickle being suspected, however improbable Chickle’s action might seem.  Again he knew that it was Joe Bridge’s custom to walk down to Barnford from Copling on Saturday afternoons to see his uncle and aunt, and with any luck this would bring the farmer to the spot.  All he had to do was to approach it by a route through the wood itself from his house, wait for Shoulter to appear, shoot him, and return home without being seen.
“Then, like all murderers, he over-plotted.  His wife was away for Christmas and it suddenly appeared to him that at all costs the servants must be got away from “Woodlands", in case they saw too much of his movements.  This is where he made his first mistake.  As it happened the girls were not keen on going and he insisted.  Now why?  What possible reason could he have for insisting on their absence unless he wished to remain unobserved?  To my mind that alone was almost enough to hang him.
“But he left further evidence.  We know beyond doubt—and we owe the knowledge to you, Beef—that he was in the wood that afternoon, and not many yards from the place where the crime was committed.  Miss Packham had sent him a Christmas card which was delivered to him shortly before three.  He was already dressed to go out—in an old mackintosh which, as we also know from Beef, had a pocket-lining missing.  The card was handed to him, he hurriedly stuffed it into his pocket, for he had not much time to spare, and subsequently dropped it on his way to the clearing.  It was found there by a Boy Scout.
“Moreover we know from Miss Shoulter that in spite of Flipp’s statement that he never left his house he was not in fact there when she called at three-forty-five.  He was, as a matter of fact, on his way back from the clearing where he had just killed Shoulter.
“And lastly there is Joe Bridge’s statement that as he approached the clearing a man in a raincoat was slinking away through the trees.  If this was not Flipp, who else could it have been?  Not Chickle, for Bridge described him as a biggish man.  There is no one else possible, unless you are going to suppose that some complete stranger of whom we haven’t heard was waiting for Shoulter in the wood that day.  The only two other males in the district who are known to go into that wood at all are the poacher Fletcher and Packham the parson.  Neither of them possesses a raincoat.  No, I think you can take it that Flipp was standing among the trees waiting for Shoulter to come from the direction of Barnford when he heard someone, who turned out to be Bridge, coming from the direction of Copling.  Not wishing to be seen, he hurried off among the trees to return when Bridge had gone.  Right?”
“Right!” said Beef with an emphatic nod.
“Then, as we know from Bridge, Shoulter came up the path a few minutes later, since Bridge met him before he reached Chickle’s bungalow half a mile away.  And he was carrying his golf-clubs.  What, I should like to know, was in that bag?  In my theory it was the gun which he had borrowed without permission from his sister some weeks before.  After he had killed his blackmailer Flipp may have noticed this and it gave him an altogether new idea.  Why should not this be made to appear suicide?  It would be yet another fortified line in his own defence.
“Flipp’s failing as a murderer was to overdo things.  If he had been satisfied with having left the suspicion to fall on Chickle or Bridge he would have made his case a better one.  But no—he could not resist this new idea.  He pulled the corpse to the side of the clearing so that it would not be visible from the path and with the only kind of line handy—a length of red tape which was either in his pocket or Shoulter’s—he rigged it as best he could to look as though Shoulter had shot himself.  Clumsy that.  It scarcely needed our ballistics expert to say that the man had been shot from some yards away while he was on the footpath.  In defence of Flipp’s intelligence it must be remembered that the face of a man shot at point-blank range by a twelve-bore would have been so nearly shot away that at the time he could scarcely be expected to see that a ballistics expert would be able to gauge the exact distance of the barrel from the head.
“Just as his arrangements were complete, some time past four o’clock he realized that he was making a serious mistake.  The gun by the dead man had not been fired.  Still wearing his gloves he remedied this, using two of his own cartridges.  Then he returned stealthily to ‘Woodlands’, quite unaware that Miss Shoulter had been there to see him, or that he had dropped the Packhams’ Christmas card near the scene of the crime.  He believed, in fact, that he had achieved a pretty clever murder.
“Now the rest is conjecture, I admit, and at present forms no part of our case, though I hope it will do so.  For I believe that Flipp murdered Chickle.  Why?  And why, according to Chickle’s housekeeper, was he so changed after that particular afternoon?  There is only one answer that I can see — Chickle knew too much.  He saw some part of the proceedings, perhaps the most fateful part.  And it worried him.  A peaceful little man of regular habits, he was distressed by being brought into contact with anything so violent, and was determined to keep out of it.  He lied to us to save himself not from the dock but from the witness box—a form of lying more common than you would suppose.  But it got on his mind.  He grew, as Mrs. Pluck said, distressed and unhappy.  If he had only done his duty and told us what he knew he would have saved his life.  But he preferred to keep it to himself.  Well, you have seen the result.  Flipp knew that he knew.  They may even have talked together in that clearing over the body of the dead man.  That we shall never know.  At all events Flipp was taking no chances.  He induced Chickle to come up to his house when no one else was there and silenced him for ever.”
“Wasn’t that a bit clumsy?” suggested Beef.  “Hanging him in his own stable, I mean?”
Chatto shrugged his shoulders.
“This one was to look like suicide.  And take in the other too.  For if Chickle committed suicide it would appear that it was because he had in fact been a murderer.  We know that Flipp was a gambler.  He was getting odds of two-to-one.  He would clear himself of both murders by this, or hang for the two.  It wasn’t a bad idea, as murderers’ ideas go—
“Well, there you have it—lock, stock, and—appropriately enough— barrel.  And I’m only waiting for you, Beef, to act according to precedent, pull the whole thing to pieces, and indicate an entirely different person as the murderer.  Then Mr. Townsend will be happy, the police will be made to look silly, and Mr. Townsend’s readers will get what they bargained for—a surprise in the last chapter.  What about it?”
Beef shook his head.
“Can’t do that,” he said.  “Can’t pull it all to pieces.  You’ve got too much truth there for me to treat your theory as a pack of cards.”
Both Chatto and I were startled, but for different reasons.
“Great Scott!” cried Chatto.  “You’re not going to admit that the police are right?
“Beef,” I exclaimed, “if you let me down after all the time I have spent on this case and the writing I have already done, I shall consider it unforgivable.  Are you going to sit there and tell me that the police suspect is guilty, and that you haven’t got a theory after all?”
Beef chuckled in his most irritating way.
“Hadn’t you both better wait till you’ve heard what I’ve got to say? I only said there was truth in what we’ve just heard.  And there is.  Any amount of truth.  But what I don’t like about it is that it leaves so much unaccounted for.  If you don’t mind my saying so, Inspector, you’ve chosen your bits of evidence to suit your theory.  And I don’t believe in doing that.  I like a theory which covers all the evidence, not bits here and there.  It’s not to say that you aren’t right enough in most of what you say.  But what about Miss Shoulter’s old shoes?  And the shot at six-fifteen?  And what Bridge saw Chickle doing in his garden?  And the marks the Boy Scouts found on the tree? There’s an awful lot you don’t account for.”
“I thought this was coming,” said Chatto.  “Go on.  You’d better tell us.  Whom do you suspect?”
Beef sucked his moustache.
“I shall have to tell you the story in my own way,” he said.
Chatto leaned back in his chair.
“Go ahead,” he invited.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Six

Case for Sergeant Beef


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.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Five

Case for Sergeant Beef


For some moments we stared down at that grotesque little figure.  Then Chatto threw the light of his torch on to a white square of paper roughly pinned to the left lapel of the coat and we read three words written in big childish letters:  “I have failed.”  If this was suicide the dead man had chosen a singularly curt message, and I at once wondered why it was written in these big square letters when normal handwriting would have served as well.
The crumpled body in its neat black clothes was not without pathos, I considered, though the protruding eyes and hideously stretched lips made it seem more macabre than pitiful.  And I realized how little we knew of this urbane old man who was in some mysterious way bound up with the crime we were investigating, and who, according to his housekeeper, had changed so drastically since the afternoon of the murder.
“That settles it,” said Chatto curtly.  “If I’d had any doubts about arresting Flipp this would have been enough.  Unless I’m very much mistaken this is Flipp’s third murder.”
“Think so?” said Beef.  “What makes you think this is murder?”
“What else could it be but a murder meant to look like suicide?”
“It could be a suicide meant to look like murder,” asserted Beef.
Chatto made that interesting sound usually reproduced by novelists as “Pshaw!”
Beef stooped over the corpse.  “You think this label was pinned on him?” he asked.
“I do,” Chatto told him.
“Well, here’s a clue for you.  If it was pinned on by another person he was left-handed.”
“How d’you make that out?”
“It’s a little towards the left breast and the pin runs from left to right as you face Chickle or from right to left as he would handle it himself.  Try handling a pin on yourself and then on someone else and see which way you instinctively put it.”
All our tempers, I think, were a trifle frayed, for it was nearing midnight and we were tired and anxious to be in warm beds.
“And you seriously ask me to decide that Mr. Chickle committed suicide because the pin on that label runs in that particular direction?”  Chatto’s voice was loud in exasperation.
“I don’t ask you to decide anything.  In fact what I’m doing is to suggest that you should not decide yet.  You’d more than half made up your mind that it was murder.”
“I had.  And I still think so.  What’s he doing here otherwise?  We know he set out to see Flipp.  It may be that while he was away he’d found out something about Flipp.  Or it may be that he’s known all along and suddenly decided to speak to Flipp.  At all events he came here, and found Flipp alone.  We can guess what happened.  It would not have been hard for that big fellow to have choked the life out off the poor little bloke, then strung him up in his shed and pinned that label on him and gone and got himself drunk.”
“All that could have happened,” admitted Beef.  “But I don’t think it did.  I’m interested in the words on that piece of paper—I have failed.  They don’t seem to me exactly the message that would be chosen by a murderer for his victim if he wanted it to look like suicide.  There’s something very real about them.”
Chatto ignored that and rather impatiently began to go through the dead man’s pockets.  Nothing.  There was not even a handkerchief in them.
“That cuts both ways,” observed Beef.
“We’ll lock this shed up and leave everything as it is till the morning.  Then we’ll get the medico out and have a proper examination.  It’s past midnight now and I’m not going to drag him out here to-night.”
The key was on the outside of the lock, so this was quite easy.  But before leaving “Woodlands” we crossed again to the house and found Constable Watts-Dunton sitting peacefully in a chair reading by the light of the oil lamp.  Flipp was still lying on the floor breathing stertorously.  Chatto called the constable out of the room and told him in a hurried whisper what we had found.  The long, serious face of Watts-Dunton did not change as he heard it.
“I’ll keep an eye on the shed till you all come up in the morning,” was all he said.
“Happen to know if anyone connected with this case is left-handed?” asked Chatto.  I smiled to perceive that he had been more impressed by Beef’s little argument than he had admitted at the time.
“I don’t recall anyone.  He wasn’t,” he said with a contemptuous nod at the figure of Flipp.  “I know that because he once turned out for the cricket team.  Nor’s Bridge.  He plays every week.  Can’t say about Mrs. Pluck, of course.”
“Better wake him up.  There’s something I’ve got to ask him at once.”
This was not so easy as it sounded, but after a good deal of shaking from Watts-Dunton, Flipp eventually opened his eyes.
“What is it?” he asked drowsily.
“Have you been across to your mixing shed this evening?”
“Yes.  Course I have.  Fed the chickens.  My wife’s deserted me.”
“What time?”
“About four o’clock.  Why?”
“Never mind why.  All right, constable.  We’ll get along.”
I noticed that Flipp’s head dropped back and his eyes closed automatically even before we had left the room.
We started the walk home with the wind behind us and were soon out on the road.  We had not gone half a mile, however, when we heard someone whistling a tune ahead of us and recognized Joe Bridge.  Chatto stopped him.
In the light of certain events of this evening about which you will doubtless hear later,” began Chatto, I’m afraid I must ask you where you have been, Mr. Bridge.”
“All right.  I’ve been to see my uncle in Barnford.”
“Funny time of night to pay a call.”
“Yes.  Wasn’t it?  Good night,” returned Bridge cheerful and recommencing his whistling he strode on.
I was scarcely awake next morning before Beef was in my room saying that we had a job to do and adjuring me to jump into my clothes quick.  I obliged him as far as I conveniently could though I would not renounce my shave.  He led me off at a fast pace, and it was scarcely seven before him I was knocking at the door of Mrs. Wilks’s cottage.  I was relieved when the door was opened by Mrs. Pluck.
“Something to tell you,” Beef mumbled.
“What is it now?”
“Mr. Chickle’s dead.  Thought you’d better know at once.”
“Oh, my God.  How?”
“You mean he hanged himself?”
“That or—well, the police think it may be murder.”
“Wherever’s this going to stop?” cried Mrs. Pluck.  “First one, then another.”
“It will stop when Shoulter’s murderer is arrested.  Now I want you to come up to Chickle’s house.  I want to have a good look round.  He may have left something interesting.”
“All right.  Wait here.  I won’t be a minute.”
Her prediction was almost accurate.  In a very short time she had joined us, wearing the rusty black hat and coat she had had on when she had called at our inn on the previous night—which seemed an age ago to me.  She proved herself the farmer’s daughter we knew her to be on her way up to “Labour’s End', striding along ahead of us so that I was soon panting in my efforts to keep up.
Inside the bungalow she became the efficient housekeeper.
“I don’t suppose you’ve either of you had a cup of tea, have you?  Sit down while I get a kettle boiling.  Poor old chap—I’m not surprised though.  I told you he’d been funny lately and yesterday when he came in he looked right down queer.”
“You don’t think it was murder then?”
“Who’s going to murder him? The other one I could understand.  But Mr. Chickle was a kind little soul.  Friendly word for everyone.  I’m sure he hadn’t an enemy in the world.”
We were soon drinking hot sweet tea and munching some bread and butter.  Mrs. Pluck seemed thoughtful, but not unduly distressed.
Then Beef made a systematic search of Chickle’s room, turning out drawers and cupboards, and examining papers.  He did not hurry, but he did not seem to find anything to interest him.  Papers were arranged methodically and were not in any case abundant, so that the search took less time than I had anticipated.  It was then extended to the rest of the house with as little result.
“You’d have thought he’d have left a letter, wouldn’t you?  He was that sort.”
By the time we had returned to Barnford the village was stirring and I saw a motor-cycle outside the police-station.
“Looks as though Chatto’s got his warrant,” remarked Beef.
As we were finishing breakfast I decided to attempt the usually unprofitable business of pumping Beef on his theories and conclusions.  He made his usual retort that I knew just as much as he did, so that my guess was as good as his.
“Do what your readers have learnt to do,” he suggested, “and choose the least likely of the lot, then see where that gets you.”
“I suppose the least likely is Aston,” I suggested tentatively.
“What about the youth Ribbon?” grinned Beef.
“I hadn’t thought of him.”
Then there are Mrs. Pluck and the two servants and Mabel Muckroyd . . .”
“I refuse to suspect her.”
“Why?  It’s been known to be ever such nice people before now.”
“You think you know who murdered Shoulter?” I asked.
“Yes.  I think I do.”
“Then why don’t you go to Chatto and tell him your theory?”
“Because it’s not complete yet.  I’ll tell you one thing.  As I see it, one of the keys to the whole thing is that little inscription I have failed.  And another’s that pair of outsize shoes.  And another is the Christmas card which Miss Packham sent to Flipp.”
“Now you’re only making it more difficult.”
“Well, it is difficult.  I doubt if we shall ever prove the thing conclusively.  It’s an unusual case, as you’ll realize.”
“Mm.  You think Chatto’s making a mistake?”
Beef grew more genial as the police were blamed.
“He’s ignoring too much evidence,” he said.  “He chooses what suits his notions and leaves out what doesn’t.”
Speak of the devil, I thought, for at that moment Inspector Chatto walked into the room.  There was a considerable change in him since the previous night-he looked fresh and sleek and smoothly shaved, and he was smiling amiably.
“I thought you two would like to be there when I make the arrest,” he said.  “Since you’ve helped me with two or three little bits of evidence.  I’ve got the warrant and I’m going up in a few minutes.”
“I should like it,” agreed Beef.  “It’s always interesting to see how a man behaves when he’s accused of murder.”
Chatto grinned.
“Especially when he’s wrongly accused, eh?  Well, come along the pair of you and you shall see for yourselves.  I’ve got a police car this morning.”
We needed no second invitation.  We pulled on our greatcoats, for it was a bitterly cold morning, and followed the inspector out.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Four

Case for Sergeant Beef


There followed a day of inactivity for me, during which Beef did what he called “studying his notes”.  I have long since given up doing anything of the sort myself, for in reading other detective novels with the eye of an experienced chronicler I have come to the reluctant conclusion that lists of suspects, time-tables, elaborate catalogues of clues and so on are the resort of those who feel the need to fill another chapter when nothing in the way of true detection presents itself.  Besides, I accept my task as that of relating the doings of Beef as faithfully as another author described “What Katy Did”, and I have decided not to vary from this rule.  If my activities are of the least importance it may be said that I played a game of snooker at the Barnford Working Men’s Club and waited for the results of the no doubt monumental deliberations that were being done by Beef.
“Solved it?” I asked cheerfully that evening.
“Not altogether.  I can’t see any reasonable motive.”
When I know that he is indulging in mysteriousness I leave him severely alone.
“Chickle came back today,” he observed.
“Yes.  On the same train as Shoulter took that day.”
“Ah,” I said, mimicking his favourite interjection.
“We’ll go up and see him in the morning.”
“Don’t you think he may get rather tired of your visits?”
“I hope so,” said Beef enigmatically.
But we were destined to see Chickle before the morning, and in circumstances which, even to me, with my long experience of the unexpected, were astonishing.
At about ten to ten that evening, when I was rather unwillingly taking down the scores for a game of darts which Beef was playing in the public bar, Mr. Bristling came in and whispered to me that Mrs. Pluck was in the bottle and jug and wanted to see Beef most particular.  As soon as he had thrown the double-eighteen which he needed for a finish, Beef accompanied me and we interviewed the housekeeper in the little back room where Joe Bridge had told us his story.  It was plain at once that she was in a state of great trepidation.
“Whatever’s? the matter?” asked Beef, to whom the visit was unwelcome, coming as it did so close to closing time.
“It’s Mr. Chickle,” she blurted out.  “He came home this afternoon looking ever so ill and funny.  He didn’t hardly speak to me and didn’t eat a bite with his tea.  Then as soon as it was dark he got on his coat and hat and said, ‘Mrs. Pluck, I’m going to call on Mr. Flipp, you understand.  If anyone should want to know where I’ve gone you tell them I’ve gone to call on Mr. Flipp.  Don’t forget that, please.’  And he marched off and hasn’t come home since.  It’s the best part of five hours he’s been gone and I’m worried sick, what with that murder in the wood and everything.”
“Did he take his gun?” asked Beef.
“His gun?  Certainly not.  Whatever for?  It was dark when he started out.”
“Well, there’s only one thing for it.  We must go and report to Inspector Chatto and see what he says.  I shouldn’t be surprised but what he decides to go up to Mr. Flipp’s home.  Come on.”
Neither Inspector Chatto nor Constable Watts-Dunton seemed very pleased to see us, but when he had heard Mrs. Pluck’s story the inspector decided, as Beef had anticipated, to go at once to “Woodlands”.  We waited only while the two policemen hastily pulled on greatcoats and then the four of us set out, while Mrs. Pluck went to the home of her friend Mrs. Wilks, saying that nothing would persuade her to go up to “Labour’s End” again that night.
I shall not easily forget that long walk through the dark and cold of a windy January night.  The two policemen were ahead, talking a little between themselves, but saying nothing to us, whose presence was made to seem on sufferance.  Beef was silent, too, and I was glad to be left to my own thoughts, which were by no means calm.  In spite of all Beef’s investigation of Mrs. Pluck, the case seemed to centre round the two contrasting men whom we should find at “Woodlands”: the big bluff Flipp and little talkative Chickle.  I formed no definite idea of what I thought had happened, but I agreed with the serious view taken by the police of Chickle’s failure to return after so long an interval.
As we tramped along with the wind in our faces a figure loomed up in the road ahead, and Inspector Chatto threw the light of his torch on the approaching man.  It was Joe Bridge.
“Where are you coming from?” asked Chatto.
“My home.  Going down to Barnford.”
“Have you met anyone on the way?”
“Not a soul.”
I knew this was not Bridge’s quickest route, but I said nothing.  Again we were trudging on.  For a few minutes there was a half-break in the clouds and a dull moon shone, but soon it was dark again.  At last we reached the end of the long drive which went up through the wood to Flipp’s lonely house, and turned in.  We were sheltered from the wind now and, except for the rattle of the bare boughs overhead, the night was quieter.
When “Woodlands” came in sight Chatto stopped, and the four of us stared into the semi-darkness.
“Not a light in the place,” said Chatto.
“May have gone to bed.  It’s nearly eleven now.”
“Then we must wake “em up.  Come on.”
We walked slowly up to the front door, peering about us as though we expected some movement in the night.  The windows were like squares of wet ink, dark and shining.
Not a dog barked.
Then we had a surprise.  The front door was wide open and we could catch a glimpse of a dark hall beyond.  We stood listening for a few minutes, but there was not a sound of movement.
“Anyone at home?” called Chatto.  Then louder, “Anyone at home?”
I had an eerie feeling that someone in the dark house was listening and waiting—perhaps crouching in fear or standing behind the locked door of a bedroom.
“Where’s the switch?” asked Chatto.
There’s no electric light,” Watts-Dunton told him.
Chatto’s torch played over the hall.  What we saw was commonplace enough—a hall table, coats hanging, a few umbrellas.  Nothing seemed out of place.  Chatto crossed to a door on the left and, flinging it open, again let his torch play over the interior.  It was a small dining-room, I judged; and lying on a mat before the last red cinders of a fire was the body of a man.
“My God!” I whispered to Beef.  “That looks like Flipp!”
It was Flipp.  He was prone on his stomach with his face buried in his arms, fully dressed.  Chatto stooped over him.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“Dead drunk,” was the curt reply, after the inspector had made a brief examination.  “Can’t you smell it?”
There was, indeed, a stench of stale alcohol in the air.
Watts-Dunton struck a match and set it to the table lamp.  A yellow light, inadequate though it was, made the figure on the floor discernible in greater detail.  Chatto had turned him over now and I could see the almost purple face of the police suspect.
Without ceremony Chatto emptied a carafe of water over the man’s head, and Flipp stirred, at first uneasily and then with a sudden jerk.
“What the hell—”
But before he could form his question Chatto snapped.  “Where’s your wife?”
“Gone,” said Flipp, and fell back again.
“And the servants?”
“Gone.  Everyone gone.  Left me alone.  Who the hell are you?”
“Police,” said Chatto.
This time Flipp sat up and attempted unsuccessfully to rise to his feet.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Mr. Chickle.”
Flipp seemed to lose interest.  He said: “Oh,” and closed his eyes.
“When did you see him last?”
“Who?  Chickle?  Days ago.”
“You haven’t seen him today?”
“Today?  No.  Haven’t been out all day.  Everyone gone and left me.  No food—nothing.  Wife deserted me.  Servants flown.  Now I want to sleep.”
Chatto shook him.
“We know positively that Mr. Chickle came to see you this evening.”
“Positively didn’t.”
“He set off from his home with the object of seeing you.”
“Never—well—came here, I tell you.  I know Chickle.  If he’d come here I’d have seen him.”
“What time did you start drinking?”
“Thirty years ago.”
“Don’t be funny, Mr. Flipp.  What time today did you start?”
“All day on and off.  Wife deserted me.  But I’m sober enough to see Chickle.”
“How long have you been asleep?”
“Few minutes.  Dropped off about eight o’clock.”
Chatto indicated to Watts-Dunton with a nod that he should stay with Flipp.  The rest of us started to search the house.  It soon became clear to us that Flipp had spoken the truth when he said that his wife and servants had left him.  In their rooms the cupboards and drawers had been emptied and a confusion of unwanted clothes and packing paper was left on the floor and furniture.  But no one was in the house.  We conscientiously looked in every space large enough to conceal a human being.
I found a large tin trunk in one bedroom and was proceeding to prise it open when Beef asked what I expected to find in it.
“Think Chickle’s inside?” he asked grinning.
It was scarcely large enough to hold a man even of the little watchmaker’s size, so I asked Beef if he’d ever heard of corpses being cut up.  This must have flummoxed him, for he laughed and walked on.  The box was full of empty bottles.
At last it was clear that we should have to look elsewhere for Chickle, and we gathered in the hall.
“You’ll have to stay here to-night,” said Chatto to Watts-Dunton.  “I’ll get a warrant out for Flipp first thing tomorrow.”
Watts-Dunton returned to his charge and the three of us went out again into the chilly and dismal night.  It seemed that the wind had dropped a little as we stood outside, or else that the shelter of the trees produced a certain quietness.  At all events I was conscious of night sounds—the hoot of an owl and what sounded like a horse kicking the wooden partition of his stall in the shed near which we were standing.
Chatto was planning that we should go to “Labour’s End” by the route which Chickle would have used when Beef suddenly gave a signal for silence and said “Ussh!”
We stood there looking at Beef and wondering what on earth he had heard.
“Flipp hasn’t got a horse, has he?”
“Shouldn’t think so; why?”
“That’s not a horse, anyway,” he said excitedly, and made a bolt for the door of the shed near which we were standing.  It yielded to him, and by the light of Chatto’s powerful torch we gazed into the interior.
Has the reader guessed?  If so he has more perspicacity than I had, for to me the sight was utterly unexpected.  There were stout beams across the shed, no more than eight feet from the ground.  From the one of these nearest to a partition was hanging the body of Wellington Chickle, his feet beating the horrible tattoo which we had heard from outside the door.  Like Flipp he was fully dressed and wore a greatcoat, while his felt hat was ludicrously pulled over his eyes.  An old wooden chair lay toppled at his feet as though he had kicked it away from under him.
In a moment Chatto had pulled out a claspknife and cut the rope while Beef lowered the little man to the ground.  I waited breathlessly while Beef stooped over him.
“Dead as mutton,” was his vulgar and irreverent verdict when he had made his examination.

Case for Sergeant Beef, Chapter Twenty-Three

Case for Sergeant Beef


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.”
“What line?”
“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.
“No.  Londoner.”
“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?”
“’Bout that.”
“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.”
“Thorogood, eh?”
“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.