Mrs. Pitts identified the coat. She had dried it at the kitchen fire one day when a thermos bottle of hot water had leaked on it. She had noticed the cigarette burn then.
Sergeant Williams, interviewing the farmer who had identified Tisdall’s car, found that he was color blind.
The truth stuck out with painful clarity. Tisdall had really lost his coat from the car on Tuesday. He had really driven away from the beach. He had not murdered Christine Clay.
By eleven that Friday evening Grant was faced with the fact that they were just where they were a week previously, when he had canceled a theater seat and come down to Westover. Worse still, they had hounded a man into flight and hiding, and they had wasted seven days on a dud investigation while the man they wanted made his escape.
Grant’s mind was a welter of broken ends and unrelated facts.
Harmer. He came into the picture now, didn’t he? They had checked his story as far as it went. He really had made inquiries from the owner of the cherry orchard, and from the post office at Liddlestone at the times he said. But after that, what? After that no one knew anything about his movements until he walked into the cottage at Medley, sometime after eight the next morning.
There was — incredibly! — Edward Champneis, who had brought back topazes for his wife, but who, for some reason, was unwilling that his movements on that Wednesday night should be investigated. There could be no other reason for his desire to make Grant believe that he had arrived in England on Thursday morning. He had not come to England secretly. If you want to arrive secretly in a country, arriving in a populous harbor by yacht is not the way to do it. Harbor master and customs’ officials are a constitutionally inquisitive race. Therefore it was not the fact of his arrival that he wanted to hide, but the way in which he had occupied his time since. The more Grant thought about it, the queerer it became. Champneis was at Dover on Wednesday night. At six on Thursday morning his well-loved wife had met her death. And Champneis did not want his movements investigated. Very queer!
There was, too, the “shilling for candles.” That, which had first caught his interest and had been put aside in favor of more obvious lines of inquiry, that would have to be looked into.
On Saturday morning the newspapers, beginning to be bored with a four-day-old manhunt, carried the glad news that the hunted man was innocent. “New information having come to police.” It was confidently expected that Tisdall would present himself before nightfall, and in that hope reporters and photographers lingered around the County police station in Westover; with more optimism than logic, it would seem, since Tisdall was just as likely to present himself at a station miles away.
But Tisdall presented himself nowhere.
This caused a slight stirring of surprise in Grant’s busy mind when he had a moment to remember Tisdall; but that was not often. He wondered why Tisdall hadn’t enough sense to come in out of the wet. It had rained again on Friday night and it had been blowing a northeaster and raining all Saturday. One would have thought he would have been glad to see a police station. He was not being sheltered by any of his old friends, that was certain. They had all been shadowed very efficiently during the four days that he was “wanted.” Grant concluded that Tisdall had not yet seen a newspaper, and dismissed the thing from his mind.
He had set the official machinery moving to discover the whereabouts of Christine Clay’s brother; he had started a train of inquiries which had the object of proving that Jason Harmer had once had a dark coat which he had lately discarded and which had a missing button. And he himself took on the investigation of Lord Edward Champneis. He noticed with his usual self-awareness that he had no intention of going to Champneis and asking for an account of his movements on Wednesday night. It would be highly embarrassing, for one thing, if Champneis proved that he had slept peacefully in his bunk all night. Or at the Lord Warden. Or otherwise had a perfect alibi. For another — oh, well, there was no getting away from the fact; one didn’t demand information from the son of a ducal house as one demanded it from a coster. A rotten world, no doubt, but one must conform.
Grant learned that the Petronel had gone around to Cowes, where her owner, Giles Champneis, would live in her for Cowes’s week. On Sunday morning, therefore, Grant flew down to Gosport, and got a boat across the glittering Spithead to the island. What had been a white flurry of rain-whipped water yesterday was now a Mediterranean sea of the most beguiling blue. The English summer was being true to form.
Grant flung the Sunday papers on the seat beside him and prepared to enjoy the crossing. And then his eye caught the Sunday Newsreel’s heading: THE TRUTH ABOUT CLAY’S EARLY LIFE. And once more the case drew him into it. On the previous Sabbath, the Sunday Wire had had as its chief “middle” a tear-compelling article by that prince of newspapermen, Jammy Hopkins. The article had consisted of an interview with a Nottingham lace-hand, Miss Helen Cozens, who had, it appeared, been a contemporary of Christine Clay’s in the factory. It had dealt touchingly with Chris’s devotion to her family, her sunny disposition, her excellent work, the number of times Miss Helen Cozens had helped her in one way or another, and it had finished with a real Hopkins touch of get-togetherness. It had been the fate of one of these two friends, he pointed out, to climb to the stars, to give pleasure to millions, to irradiate the world. But there were other fates as glowing if less spectacular; and Helen Cozens, in her little two-room home, looking after a delicate mother, had had a destiny no less wonderful, no less worthy of the world’s homage. It was a good article, and Jammy had been pleased with it.
Now the Sunday Newsreel appeared with an interview of its own. And it caused Grant the only smile he had enjoyed that week. Meg Hindler was the lady interviewed. Once a factory hand but now the mother of eight. And she wanted to know what the hell that goddamned old maid Nell Cozens thought she was talking about, and she hoped she might be struck down for her lies, and if her mother drank the lord knew it was no wonder with a nagging dyspeptic piece of acid like her daughter around, and everyone knew that Christina Gotobed was out of the factory and away from the town long before Nell Cozens put her crooked nose into the place at all.
It was not put just like that, but to anyone reading between the lines it was perfectly clear.
Meg really had known Christine. She was a quiet girl, she said, always trying to better herself. Not very popular with her contemporaries. Her father was dead and she lived with her mother and brother in a three-room tenement house. The brother was older, and was the mother’s favorite. When Chris was seventeen the mother had died, and the family had disappeared from Nottingham. They did not belong to the town and had had no roots there, and no one had regretted them when they went. Least of all people who hadn’t come into the town until years afterwards.
Grant wondered how Jammy would enjoy being taken for a ride by the imaginative Nell. So the elder brother had been the mother’s favorite, had he? Grant wondered how much that meant. A shilling for candles. What family row had left such a mark that she should immortalize it in her will? Oh, well! Reporters thought they were clever, but the Yard had ways and means that were not open to the Press, however powerful. By the time he got back tonight, Christine Clay’s early life would be on his desk in full detail. He discarded the Wire and turned to the other papers in the bundle. The Sunday Telegraph had a symposium — a very dignified and conveniently cheap method of filling a page. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Jason Harmer had given their personal view of Christine Clay and her influence on her art. (The Sunday Telegraph liked influence and art. Even boxers never described punches to it: they explained their art.) The silly little paragraphs were all conventional, except Jason’s, which had a violent sincerity beneath its sickly phrases. Marta Hallard was graceful about Clay’s genius, and for once omitted to condone her lowly origin. The heir to a European throne extolled her beauty. A flying ace her courage. An ambassador her wit. It must have cost the Telegraph something in telephones.
Grant turned to the Courier, and found Miss Lydia Keats being informative all over the middle pages on the signs of the Zodiac. Lydia’s stock had dropped a little in her own circles during the last week. It was felt that if she had foreseen the Clay end so clearly it was a little weak of her to overlook a small detail like murder. But in the public eye she was booming. There was no fraud about Lydia. She had stated in public, many months ago, what the stars foretold for Christine Clay, and the stars were right. And if there is anything the public loves it is a prophecy come true. They pushed their shuddering spines more firmly into the cushions and asked for more. And Lydia was giving it to them. In small type at the end of the article appeared the information that, thanks to the Courier’s generosity, its readers might obtain horoscopes from the infallible Miss Keats at the cost of one shilling, coupon on the back page.
Grant tucked the smaller illustrateds under his arm, and prepared to get off the boat. He watched a sailor twisting a hawser around a bollard and wished that he had chosen a profession that dealt with things and not with people.
The Petronel was moored in the roads. Grant engaged a boatman and was rowed out to her. An elderly deckhand pushed a pipe into a pocket and prepared to receive them. Grant asked if Lord Giles were on board, happily aware that he was in Buckinghamshire. On hearing that he was not expected for a week, Grant looked suitably disappointed and asked if he might come on board: he had hoped that Giles would show him the craft. The man was pleased and garrulous. He was alone on board and had been very bored. It would be a pleasant diversion to show the good-looking friend of Lord Giles around the ship, and no doubt there would be a tip forthcoming. He did the honors with a detail that wearied Grant a little, but he was very informative. When Grant remarked on the splendid sleeping accommodation, the man said that Lord Giles wasn’t one for ever sleeping ashore if he could help it. Never so happy as on salt water, Lord Giles wasn’t.
“Lord Edward isn’t so fond of it,” Grant remarked, and the man chuckled.
“No, not Lord Edward, he wasn’t. He was ashore the minute the dinghy could be swung out or a hawser slapped on a quay.”
“I suppose he stayed with the Beechers the night you made Dover?”
The deckhand didn’t rightly know where he slept. All he knew was that he didn’t sleep on board. In fact, they hadn’t seen him again. His hand luggage had been sent to the boat train and the rest had been sent to town after him. Because of the sad thing that happened to his lady, that was. Had Grant ever seen her? A film actress, she was. Very good, too. It was dreadful wasn’t it, the things that happened in good families nowadays. Even murders. Changed days indeed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Grant said. “The older families of England made a pastime of murder if my history books told the truth.”
The man was so pleased with his tip that he offered to make cocoa for the visitor, but Grant wanted to get ashore so that he could talk to the Yard. On the way back he wondered just how Champneis had spent that night ashore. The most likely explanation was that he had stayed with friends. But if he had stayed with friends, why the desire to avoid attention? The more Grant thought of it the more out-of-character it was in the man to want to hide anything. Edward Champneis was a person who did what he wanted to in broad daylight and cared not a straw for opinions or consequences. Grant found it difficult to associate him in his mind with any furtive activity whatever. And that very thought led to a logical and rather staggering sequel. It was no petty thing that Champneis had to hide. Nothing but some matter of vast importance would have driven Champneis to prevarication. Grant could dismiss, therefore, any thought of a light love affair. Champneis had, in any case, a reputation that bordered on the austere. And if one dismissed a love affair what was left? What possible activity could a man of Champneis’s stamp want to keep secret? Except murder!
Murder was just possible. If that calm security were once shattered, who knew what might flame out? He was a man who would both give and demand fidelity — and be unforgiving to the faithless. Supposing —! There was Harmer. Christine Clay’s colleagues may have doubted that she and Harmer were lovers, but the beau monde, unused to the partnership of work, had no doubt. Had Champneis come to believe that? His and Christine’s love for each other was an equable affair, but his pride would be a very real thing, fragile and passionate. Had he —? That was an idea! Had he driven over to the cottage that night? He was, after all, the only person who knew where she was: nearly all her telegrams had been to him. He was in Dover, and she was only an hour away. W-hat more natural than that he should have motored over to surprise her? And if so —
A picture swam into Grant’s mind. The cottage in the summer dark, the lit windows open to the night, so that every word, every movement almost, is audible outside. And in the rose-tangled mass of the garden a man standing, arrested by the voices. He stands there, quite silent, quite still, watching. Presently the lights go out. And in a little while the figure in the garden moves away. Where? To brood on his homecoming; on his cuckold state? To tramp the downs till morning? To see her come to the beach, unexpected, alone? To —
Grant shook himself and picked up the telephone receiver.
“Edward Champneis didn’t spend the night of Wednesday on board,” he said, when he had been connected. “I want to know where he did spend it. And don’t forget, discretion is the better part. You may find that he spent it with the Warden of the Cinque Ports, or something equally orthodox, but I’ll be surprised if he did. It would be a good idea if someone got friendly with his valet and went through his wardrobe for a dark coat. You know the strongest card we have is that no one outside the force knows about that button. The fact that we asked for any discarded coat that was found to be brought in doesn’t convey much to anyone. The chances are ten to one, I think, that the coat is still with its owner. Keeping a coat, even with a missing button, is less conspicuous than getting rid of one. And that SOS for the coat was only a police circular, anyhow, not a public appeal. So inspect the Champneis wardrobe . . . No, I haven’t got anything on him . . . Yes, I know it is mad. But I’m not taking any more chances in this case. Only be discreet, for Heaven’s sake. I’m in bad enough odor as it is. What is the news? Has Tisdall turned up? . . . Oh, well, I expect he will by night. He might give the Press a break. They’re waiting breathless for him. How is the Clay dossier coming? . . . Oh. Has Vine come back from interviewing the dresser — what’s-her-name? Bundle — yet? No? All right, I’m coming straight back to town.”
As Grant hung up he shut his mind quickly on the thought that tried to jump in. Of course Tisdall was all right. What could happen to an adult in the English countryside in summer? Of course he was all right.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55