They stood around the body in a solemn little group: Potticary, Bill, the sergeant, a constable, and the two ambulance men. The younger ambulance man was worried about his stomach, and the possibility of its disgracing him, but the others had nothing but business in their minds.
“Know her?” the sergeant asked.
“No,” said Potticary. “Never seen her before.”
None of them had seen her before.
“Can’t be from Westover. No one would come out from town with a perfectly good beach at their doors. Must have come from inland somewhere.”
“Maybe she went into the water at Westover and was washed up here,” the constable suggested.
“Not time for that,” Potticary objected. “She hadn’t been that long in the water. Must have been drowned hereabouts.”
“Then how did she get here?” the sergeant asked.
“By car, of course,” Bill said.
“And where is the car now?”
“Where everyone leaves their car: where the track ends at the trees.”
“Yes?” said the sergeant. “Well, there’s no car there.”
The ambulance men agreed with him. They had come up that way with the police — the ambulance was waiting there now — but there was no sign of any other car.
“That’s funny,” Potticary said. “There’s nowhere near enough to be inside walking distance. Not at this time in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t think she’d walk anyhow,” the older ambulance man observed. “Expensive,” he added, as they seemed to question him.
They considered the body for a moment in silence. Yes, the ambulance man was right; it was a body expensively cared for.
“And where are her clothes, anyhow?”
The sergeant was worried.
Potticary explained his theory about the clothes; that she had left them below high-water mark and that they were now somewhere at sea.
“Yes, that’s possible,” said the sergeant.
“But how did she get here?”
“Funny she should be bathing alone, isn’t it?” ventured the young ambulance man, trying out his stomach.
“Nothing’s funny, nowadays,” Bill rumbled. “It’s a wonder she wasn’t playing jumping off the cliff with a glider. Swimming on an empty stomach, all alone, is just too ordinary. The young fools make me tired.”
“Is that a bracelet around her ankle, or what?” the constable asked.
Yes, it was a bracelet. A chain of platinum links. Curious links, they were. Each one shaped like a C.
“Well,” the sergeant straightened himself, “I suppose there’s nothing to be done but to remove the body to the mortuary, and then find out who she is. Judging by appearances that shouldn’t be difficult. Nothing ‘lost, stolen or strayed’ about that one.”
“No,” agreed the ambulance man. “The butler is probably telephoning the station now in great agitation.”
“Yes.” The sergeant was thoughtful. “I still wonder how she came here, and what —”
His eyes had lifted to the cliff face, and he paused.
“So! We have company!” he said.
They turned to see a man’s figure on the cliff-top at the Gap. He was standing in an attitude of intense eagerness, watching them. As they turned towards him he did a swift right-about and disappeared.
“A bit early for strollers,” the sergeant said. “And what’s he running away for? We’d better have a talk with him.”
But before he and the constable had moved more than a pace or two it became evident that the man, far from running away, had been merely making for the entrance to the Gap. His thin dark figure shot now from the mouth of the Gap and came towards them at a shambling run, slipping and stumbling, and giving the little group watching his advent an impression of craziness. They could hear the breath panting through his open mouth as he drew near, although the distance from the Gap was not long and he was young.
He stumbled into their compact circle without looking at them, pushing aside the two policemen who had unconsciously interposed their bulk between him and the body.
“Oh, yes, it is! Oh, it is, it is!” he cried, and without warning sat down and burst into loud tears.
Six flabbergasted men watched him in silence for a moment. Then the sergeant patted him kindly on the back and said, idiotically, “It’s all right, son!”
But the young man only rocked himself to and fro and wept the more.
“Come on, come on,” rallied the constable, coaxing. (Really, a dreadful exhibition on a nice bright morning.) “That won’t do anyone any good, you know. Best pull yourself together — sir,” he added, noting the quality of the handkerchief which the young man had produced.
“A relation of yours?” the sergeant inquired, his voice suitably modulated from its former businesslike pitch.
The young man shook his head.
“Oh, just a friend?”
“She was so good to me, so good!”
“Well, at least you’ll be able to help us. We were beginning to wonder about her. You can tell us who she is.”
“She’s my — hostess.”
“Yes, but I meant, what is her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You — don’t — know! Look here, sir, pull yourself together. You’re the only one that can help us. You must know the name of the lady you were staying with.”
“No, no; I don’t.”
“What did you call her, then?”
“And what did she call you?”
“Is that your name?”
“Yes, my name’s Robert Stannaway. No, Tisdall. It used to be Stannaway,” he added, catching the sergeant’s eye and feeling apparently that explanation was needed.
What the sergeant’s eye said was “God give me patience!” What his tongue said was “It all sounds a bit strange to me, Mr. — er —”
“Tisdall. Can you tell me how the lady got here this morning?”
“Oh, yes. By car.”
“By car, eh? Know what became of the car?”
“Yes. I stole it.”
“I stole it. I’ve just brought it back. It was a swinish thing to do. I felt a cad so I came back. When I found she wasn’t anywhere on the road, I thought I’d find her stamping about here. Then I saw you all standing around something — oh dear, oh dear!” He began to rock himself again.
“Where were you staying with this lady?” asked the sergeant, in exceedingly businesslike tones. “In Westover?”
“Oh, no. She has — had, I mean — oh dear! — a cottage. Briars, it’s called. Just outside Medley.”
“‘Bout a mile and a half inland,” supplemented Potticary, as the sergeant, who was not a native, looked a question.
“Were you alone, or is there a staff there?”
“There’s just a woman from the village — Mrs. Pitts — who comes in and cooks.”
There was a slight pause.
“All right, boys.” The sergeant nodded to the ambulance men, and they bent to their work with the stretcher. The young man drew in his breath sharply and once more covered his face with his hands.
“To the mortuary, Sergeant?”
The man’s hands came away from his face abruptly.
“Oh, no! Surely not! She had a home. Don’t they take people home?”
“We can’t take the body of an unknown woman to an uninhabited bungalow.”
“It isn’t a bungalow,” the man automatically corrected. “No. No, I suppose not. But it seems dreadful — the mortuary. Oh, God in heaven above!” he burst out, “why did this have to happen!”
“Davis,” the sergeant said to the constable, “you go back with the others and report. I’m going over to — what is it? — Briars? with Mr. Tisdall.”
The two ambulance men crunched their heavy way over the pebbles, followed by Potticary and Bill. The noise of their progress had become distant before the sergeant spoke again.
“I suppose it didn’t occur to you to go swimming with your hostess?”
A spasm of something like embarrassment ran across Tisdall’s face. He hesitated.
“No. I not much in my line, I’m afraid: swimming before breakfast. I— I’ve always been a rabbit at games and things like that.”
The sergeant nodded, noncommittal. “When did she leave for a swim?”
“I don’t know. She told me last night that she was going to the Gap for a swim if she woke early. I woke early myself, but she was gone.”
“I see. Well, Mr. Tisdall, if you’ve recovered I think we’ll be getting along.”
“Yes. Yes, certainly. I’m all right.” He got to his feet and together and in silence they traversed the beach, climbed the steps at the Gap, and came on the car where Tisdall said he had left it: in the shade of the trees where the track ended. It was a beautiful car, if a little too opulent. A cream-colored two-seater with a space between the seats and the hood for parcels, or, at a pinch, for an extra passenger. From this space, the sergeant, exploring, produced a woman’s coat and a pair of the sheepskin boots popular with women at winter race-meetings.
“That’s what she wore to go down to the beach. Just the coat and boots over her bathing things. There’s a towel, too.”
There was. The sergeant produced it: a brilliant object in green and orange.
“Funny she didn’t take it to the beach with her,” he said.
“She liked to dry herself in the sun usually.”
“You seem to know a lot about the habits of a lady whose name you didn’t know.” The sergeant inserted himself into the second seat. “How long have you been living with her?”
“Staying with her,” amended Tisdall, his voice for the first time showing an edge. “Get this straight, Sergeant, and it may save you a lot of bother: Chris was my hostess. Not anything else. We stayed in her cottage unchaperoned, but a regiment of servants couldn’t have made our relations more correct. Does that strike you as so very peculiar?”
“Very,” said the sergeant frankly. “What are these doing here?”
He was peering into a paper bag which held two rather jaded buns.
“Oh, I took these along for her to eat. They were all I could find. We always had a bun when we came out of the water when we were kids. I thought maybe she’d be glad of something.”
The car was slipping down the steep track to the main Westover–Stonegate road. They crossed the high road and entered a deep lane on the other side. A signpost said “Medley 1, Liddlestone 3.”
“So you had no intention of stealing the car when you set off to follow her to the beach?”
“Certainly not!” Tisdall said, as indignantly as if it made a difference. “It didn’t even cross my mind till I came up the hill and saw the car waiting there. Even now I can’t believe I really did it. I’ve been a fool, but I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“Was she in the sea then?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go to look. If I had seen her even in the distance I couldn’t have done it. I just slung the buns in and beat it. When I came to I was halfway to Canterbury. I just turned her around without stopping, and came straight back.”
The sergeant made no comment.
“You still haven’t told me how long you’ve been staying at the cottage?”
“Since Saturday midnight.”
It was now Thursday.
“And you still ask me to believe that you don’t know your hostess’s last name?”
“No. It’s a bit queer, I know. I thought so, myself, at first. I had a conventional upbringing. But she made it seem natural. After the first day we simply accepted each other. It was as if I had known her for years.” As the sergeant said nothing, but sat radiating doubt as a stove radiates heat, he added with a hint of temper, “Why shouldn’t I tell you her name if I knew it!”
“How should I know?” said the sergeant, unhelpfully. He considered out of the corner of his eye the young man’s pale, if composed, face. He seemed to have recovered remarkably quickly from his exhibition of nerves and grief. Lightweights, these moderns. No real emotion about anything. Just hysteria. What they called love was just a barnyard exercise; they thought anything else “sentimental.” No discipline. No putting up with things. Every time something got difficult, they ran away. Not slapped enough in their youth. All this modern idea about giving children their own way. Look what it led to. Howling on the beach one minute and as cool as a cucumber the next.
And then the sergeant noticed the trembling of the too fine hands on the wheel. No, whatever else Robert Tisdall was he wasn’t cool.
“This is the place?” the sergeant asked, as they slowed down by a hedged garden. “This is the place.”
It was a half-timbered cottage of about five rooms; shut in from the road by a seven-foot hedge of briar and honeysuckle, and dripping with roses. A godsend for Americans, weekenders, and photographers. The little windows yawned in the quiet, and the bright blue door stood hospitably open, disclosing in the shadow the gleam of a brass warming pan on the wall. The cottage had been “discovered.”
As they walked up the brick path, a thin small woman appeared on the doorstep, brilliant in a white apron; her scanty hair drawn to a knob at the back of her head, and a round bird’s-nest affair of black satin set insecurely at the very top of her arched, shining poll.
Tisdall lagged as he caught sight of her, so that the sergeant’s large official elevation should announce trouble to her with the clarity of a sandwich board.
But Mrs. Pitts was a policeman’s widow, and no apprehension showed on her tight little face. Buttons coming up the path meant for her a meal in demand; her mind acted accordingly.
“I’ve been making some griddle cakes for breakfast. It’s going to be hot later on. Best to let the stove out. Tell Miss Robinson when she comes in, will you, sir?” Then, realizing that buttons were a badge of office, “Don’t tell me you’ve been driving without a license, sir!”
“Miss — Robinson, is it? Has met with an accident,” the sergeant said.
“The car! Oh, dear! She was always that reckless with it. Is she bad?”
“It wasn’t the car. An accident in the water.”
“Oh,” she said slowly. “That bad!”
“How do you mean: that bad?”
“Accidents in the water only mean one thing.”
“Yes,” agreed the sergeant.
“Well, well,” she said, sadly contemplative. Then, her manner changing abruptly, “And where were you?” she snapped, eyeing the drooping Tisdall as she eyed Saturday-night fish on a Westover fishmonger’s slab. Her superficial deference to “gentry” had vanished in the presence of catastrophe. Tisdall appeared as the “bundle of uselessness” she had privately considered him.
The sergeant was interested but snubbing. “The gentleman wasn’t there.”
“He ought to have been there. He left just after her.”
“How do you know that?”
“I saw him. I live in the cottage down the road.”
“Do you know Miss Robinson’s other address? I take it for granted this isn’t her permanent home.”
“No, of course it isn’t. She only has this place for a month. It belongs to Owen Hughes.” She paused, impressively, to let the importance of the name sink in. “But he’s doing a film in Hollywood. About a Spanish count, it was to be, so he told me. He said he’s done Italian counts and French counts and he thought it would be a new experience for him to be a Spanish count. Very nice, Mr. Hughes is. Not a bit spoiled in spite of all the fuss they make of him. You wouldn’t believe it, but a girl came to me once and offered me five pounds if I’d give her the sheets he had slept in. What I gave her was a piece of my mind. But she wasn’t a bit ashamed. Offered me twenty-five shillings for a pillow slip. I don’t know what the world is coming to, that I don’t, what with —”
“What other address had Miss Robinson?”
“I don’t know any of her addresses but this one.”
“Didn’t she write and tell you that she was coming?”
“Write! No! She sent telegrams. I suppose she could write, but I’ll take my alfred davy she never did. About six telegrams a day used to go to the post office in Liddlestone. My Albert used to take them, mostly; between school. Some of them used three or four forms, they were that long.”
“Do you know any of the people she had down here, then?”
“She didn’t have any folks here. ‘Cept Mr. Stannaway, that is.”
“Not a one. Once — it was when I was showing her the trick of flushing the W.C.; you have to pull hard and then let go smart-like — once she said: ‘Do you ever, Mrs. Pitts,’ she said, ‘get sick of the sight of people’s faces?’ I said I got a bit tired of some. She said: ‘Not some, Mrs. Pitts. All of them. Just sick of people.’ I said when I felt like that I took a dose of castor oil. She laughed and said it wasn’t a bad idea. Only everyone should have one and what a good new world it would be in two days. ‘Mussolini never thought of that one,’ she said.”
“Was it London she came from?”
“Yes. She went up just once or twice in the three weeks she’s been here. Last time was last weekend, when she brought Mr. Stannaway back.” Again her glance dismissed Tisdall as something less than human. “Doesn’t he know her address?” she asked.
“No one does,” the sergeant said. “I’ll look through her papers and see what I can find.”
Mrs. Pitts led the way into the living room; cool, low-beamed, and smelling of sweet peas.
“What have you done with her — with the body, I mean?” she asked.
“At the mortuary.”
This seemed to bring home tragedy for the first time.
“Oh, deary me.” She moved the end of her apron over a polished table, slowly. “And me making griddle cakes.”
This was not a lament for wasted griddle cakes, but her salute to the strangeness of life.
“I expect you’ll need breakfast,” she said to Tisdall, softened by her unconscious recognition of the fact that the best are but puppets.
But Tisdall wanted no breakfast. He shook his head and turned away to the window, while the sergeant searched in the desk.
“I wouldn’t mind one of those griddle cakes,” the sergeant said, turning over papers.
“You won’t get better in Kent, though it’s me that’s saying it. And perhaps Mr. Stannaway will swallow some tea.”
She went away to the kitchen.
“So you didn’t know her name was Robinson?” said the sergeant, glancing up.
“Mrs. Pitts always addressed her as ‘miss.’ And anyhow, did she look as if her name was Robinson?”
The sergeant, too, did not believe for a moment that her name was Robinson, so he let the subject drop.
Presently Tisdall said: “If you don’t need me, I think I’ll go into the garden. It — it’s stuffy in here.”
“All right. You won’t forget I need the car to get back to Westover.”
“I’ve told you. It was a sudden impulse. Anyhow, I couldn’t very well steal it now and hope to get away with it.”
Not so dumb, decided the sergeant. Quite a bit of temper, too. Not just a nonentity, by any means.
The desk was littered with magazines, newspapers, half-finished cartons of cigarettes, bits of a jigsaw puzzle, a nail file and polish, patterns of silk, and a dozen more odds and ends; everything, in fact, except notepaper. The only documents were bills from the local tradesmen, most of them receipted. If the woman had been untidy and unmethodical, she had at least had a streak of caution. The receipts might be crumpled and difficult to find if wanted, but they had never been thrown away.
The sergeant, soothed by the quiet of the early morning, the cheerful sounds of Mrs. Pitts making tea in the kitchen, and the prospect of griddle cakes to come, began as he worked at the desk to indulge in his one vice. He whistled. Very low and round and sweet, the sergeant’s whistling was, but, still — whistling. “Sing to Me Sometimes” he warbled, not forgetting the grace notes, and his subconscious derived great satisfaction from the performance. His wife had once shown him a bit in the Mail that said that whistling was the sign of an empty mind. But it hadn’t cured him.
And then, abruptly, the even tenor of the moment was shattered. Without warning there came a mock tattoo on the half-open sitting-room door —tum-te-ta-tum-tumta-TA! A man’s voice said, “So this is where you’re hiding out!” The door was flung wide with a flourish and in the opening stood a short dark stranger.
“We-e-ell,” he said, making several syllables of it. He stood staring at the sergeant, amused and smiling broadly. “I thought you were Chris! What is the Force doing here? Been a burglary?”
“No, no burglary.” The sergeant was trying to collect his thoughts.
“Don’t tell me Chris has been throwing a wild party! I thought she gave that up years ago. They don’t go with all those highbrow roles.”
“No, as a matter of fact, there’s —”
“Where is she, anyway?” He raised his voice in a cheerful shout directed at the upper story. “Yo-hoo! Chris. Come on down, you old so-and-so! Hiding out on me!” To the sergeant: “Gave us all the slip for nearly three weeks now. Too much Kleig, I guess. Gives them all the jitters sooner or later. But then, the last one was such a success they naturally want to cash in on it.” He hummed a bar of “Sing to Me Sometimes,” with mock solemnity. “That’s why I thought you were Chris; you were whistling her song. Whistling darned good, too.”
“Her — her song?” Presently, the sergeant hoped, a gleam of light would be vouchsafed him.
“Yes, her song. Who else’s? You didn’t think it was mine, my dear good chap, did you? Not on your life. I wrote the thing, sure. But that doesn’t count. It’s her song. And perhaps she didn’t put it across! Eh? Wasn’t that a performance?”
“I couldn’t really say.” If the man would stop talking, he might sort things out.
“Perhaps you haven’t seen Bars of Iron yet?”
“No, I can’t say I have.”
“That’s the worst of wireless and gramophone records and what not: they take all the pep out of a film. Probably by the time you hear Chris sing that song you’ll be so sick of the sound of it that you’ll retch at the ad lib. It’s not fair to a film. All right for songwriters and that sort of cattle, but rough on a film, very rough. There ought to be some sort of agreement. Hey, Chris! Isn’t she here, after all my trouble in catching up on her?” His face drooped like a disappointed baby’s. “Having her walk in and find me isn’t half such a good one as walking in on her. Do you think —”
“Just a minute, Mr. — er — I don’t know your name.”
“I’m Jay Harmer. Jason on the birth certificate. I wrote ‘If It Can’t Be in June.’ You probably whistle that as —”
“Mr. Harmer. Do I understand that the lady who is — was — staying here is a film actress?”
“Is she a film actress!” Slow amazement deprived Mr. Harmer for once of speech. Then it began to dawn on him that he must have made a mistake. “Say, Chris is staying here, isn’t she?”
“The lady’s name is Chris, yes. But — well, perhaps you’ll be able to help us. There’s been some trouble — very unfortunate — and apparently she said her name was Robinson.”
The man laughed in rich amusement. “Robinson! That’s a good one. I always said she had no imagination. Couldn’t write a gag. Did you believe she was a Robinson?”
“Well, no; it seemed unlikely.”
“What did I tell you! Well, just to pay her out for treating me like bits on the cutting-room floor, I’m going to split on her. She’ll probably put me in the icebox for twenty-four hours, but it’ll be worth it. I’m no gentleman, anyhow, so I won’t damage myself in the telling. The lady’s name, Sergeant, is Christine Clay.”
“Christine Clay!” said the sergeant. His jaw slackened and dropped, quite beyond his control.
“Christine Clay!” breathed Mrs. Pitts, standing in the doorway, a forgotten tray of griddle cakes in her hands.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14