IN the morning Grant telephoned to his chief, but he had no sooner begun his story than Bryce interrupted him.
‘That you, Grant? You send back that Man Friday of yours straight away. Benny Skoll cleaned out Poppy Plumtre’s bedroom safe last night.’
‘I thought all Poppy’s valuables were with Uncle.’
‘Not since she got herself a new daddy.’
‘Are you sure that it’s Benny?’
‘Quite sure. It has all his trade-marks. The telephone call to get the hall porter out of the way, the lack of fingerprints, the bread-and-jam and milk meal, the exit by the service entrance. Short of signing his name in the visitors’ book, he couldn’t have written his signature more clearly over it.’
‘Ah, well; the day criminals learn to vary their technique we go out of business.’
‘I need Williams to pick up Benny. Williams knows Benny like a book. So send him back. How are you doing?’
‘Not too well.’
‘We have no corpse. So we have two possibilities: Searle is dead, either by accident or by design; or he has just disappeared for ends of his own.’
‘What sort of ends?’
‘Practical joke, perhaps.’
‘He had better not try that stuff with us.’
‘It might, of course, be plain amnesia.’
‘It had better be.’
‘There are two things I need, sir. A radio S.O.S. is one. And the other is some information from the San Francisco police about Searle. We are working in the dark, knowing nothing about him. His only relation in England is a cousin; a woman artist, with whom he had no contact. Or says he hadn’t. She will probably get in touch with us when she sees the papers this morning. But she will probably know very little about him.’
‘And you think the San Francisco police will know more?’
‘Well, San Francisco was his headquarters, I understand, when he spent the winter months on the Coast, and they can no doubt dig up something about him there. Let us know whether he ever was in any bother and if anyone was liable to kill him for any reason.’
‘A lot of people would like to kill a photographer, I should think. Yes, we’ll do that.’
‘Thank you, sir. And about the S.O.S.?’
‘The B.B.C. don’t like their nice little radio cluttered up with police messages. What did you want to say?’
‘I want to ask anyone who gave a lift to a young man between Wickham and Crome on Wednesday night to get in touch with us.’
‘Yes, I’ll see to that. I suppose you have covered all the regular services?’
‘Everything, sir. Not a sign of him anywhere. And he is hardly inconspicuous. Short of his having a rendezvous with a waiting plane — which only happens in boys’ stories, as far as I’m aware — the only way he could have got away from the district is by walking over the fields and getting a lift on the main road.’
‘No evidence of homicide?’
‘None so far. But I shall see what alibis the locals have, this morning.’
‘You push Williams off before you do anything else. I’ll send the San Francisco information to the Wickham Station when it comes through.’
‘Very good, sir. Thank you.’
Grant hung up and went to tell Williams.
‘Damn Benny,’ Williams said. ‘Just when I was beginning to like this bit of country. It’s no day to wrestle with Benny anyhow.’
‘Is he tough?’
‘Benny? No! He’s a horror. He’ll cry and carry on and say that we are hounding him, and that he is no sooner out of stir and trying to make good —“make good”! Benny! — than we are down on him to come and be questioned, and what chance has he in the circs, and so on. He turns my stomach. If Benny saw an honest day’s work coming his way he’d run for his life. He’s a wonderful cryer, though. He once got a question asked in Parliament. You’d wonder how some of those M.P.s ever had brains enough to ask for a railway ticket from their home towns. Have I got to take a train to town?’
‘I expect Rodgers will give you a car to Crome and you can get a fast train there,’ Grant said, smiling at the horror on his colleague’s face at the thought of train travel. He himself went back to the telephone and called Marta Hallard at the Mill House in Salcott St Mary.
‘Alan!’ she said. ‘How nice. Where are you?’
‘At the White Hart in Wickham.’
‘You poor dear!’
‘Oh, it isn’t too bad.’
‘Don’t be so noble. You know it is primitive to the point of being penitential. Have you heard about our latest sensation, by the way?’
‘I have. That is why I am in Wickham.’
There was a complete silence at that.
Then Marta said: ‘You mean the Yard are interested in Leslie Searle’s drowning?’
‘In Searle’s disappearance, let us say.’
‘You mean, that there is some truth in this rumour of a quarrel with Walter?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss it over the telephone. What I wanted to ask you was whether you would be at home this evening if I came along.’
‘But you must come and stay, of course. You can’t stay at that dreary place. I’ll tell Mrs ——’
‘Thank you with all my heart, but I can’t do that. I must be here in Wickham at the centre of things. But if you like to give me dinner ——’
‘Of course I shall give you dinner. You shall have a beautiful meal, my dear. With one of my omelets and one of Mrs Thrupp’s chickens, and a bottle from the cellar that will take the taste of the White Hart beer out of your mouth.’
So, a little heartened at the prospect of civilisation at the end of the day, Grant went out on his day’s task, and he began with Trimmings. If there was to be a reckoning of alibis it was fitting that the inhabitants of Trimmings should be the first to give an account of themselves.
It was a fine blue morning, growing soft after an early frost, and no day, as Williams had pointed out, to waste on the Bennys of this life; but the sight of Trimmings standing up unblushingly in the bright sunlight restored Grant’s wavering good humour. Last night it had been a lighted doorway in the dark. Today it stood revealed, extravagantly monstrous, in all its smug detail, and Grant was so enraptured that his foot came down on the brake and he brought the car to a standstill at the curve of the drive, and sat there gazing.
‘I know just how you are feeling,’ a voice said at his elbow. And there was Liz; a little heavy-eyed, he noticed, but otherwise calm and friendly.
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I was a little dashed this morning because I couldn’t drop everything and go fishing. But I feel better now.’
‘It is a beauty, isn’t it,’ she agreed. ‘You don’t quite believe it is there at all. You feel that no one could possibly have thought it up; it just appeared.’
Her thoughts shifted from the house to his presence, and he saw the question coming.
‘I am sorry to be a nuisance, but I am busy this morning getting rid of the undergrowth in this case.’
‘I want to get rid of all the people who can’t possibly enter into the case at all.’
‘I see. You are collecting alibis.’
‘Yes.’ He opened the car door, so that she might ride the short distance to the house.
‘Well, I hope we have good ones. I regret to say that I haven’t one at all. It was the first thing I thought of when I knew who you were. It’s very odd, isn’t it, how guilty an innocent person feels when he can’t account for himself on the umpteenth inst. Do you want everyone’s alibi? Aunt Lavinia’s and mother’s and all?’
‘And those of the staff, too. Of everyone who had any connection with Leslie Searle.’
‘Well, you had better start with Aunt Vin. Before she begins her morning chore. She dictates for two hours every morning, and she likes to begin punctually.’
‘Where were you, Miss Garrowby?’ he asked as they arrived at the door.
‘At the material time?’ He thought she was being deliberately cold-blooded about it; the ‘material time’ was when Leslie Searle had presumably lost his life, and he did not think that she was forgetting that fact.
‘Yes. On Wednesday night.’
‘I had what they call in detective stories “retired to my room”. And don’t tell me that it was “early to retire”, either. I know it was. I like going upstairs early. I like being alone at the end of the day.’
‘Do you read?’
‘Don’t tell, Inspector, but I write.’
‘Do I disappoint you?’
‘You interest me. What do you write — or shouldn’t I ask?’
‘I write innocuous heroines out of my system, that’s all.’
‘Tilda the tweeny with the hare-lip and the homicidal tendencies, as antidote to Maureen.’
She looked at him for a long moment and then said: ‘You are a very odd sort of policeman.’
‘I suspect that it is your idea of policemen that is odd,’ Grant said briskly. ‘Will you tell your aunt that I am here?’
But there was no need to announce him. Miss Fitch was in the hall as Liz ran up the steps, and she said in tones more surprised than grieved:
‘Liz, you are five minutes late!’ Then she saw the Inspector, and said: ‘Well, well, they were right. They said that no one would ever take you for a policeman. Come in, Inspector. I have wanted so much to meet you. Officially, as it were. Our last encounter could hardly be termed a meeting, could it. Come into the morning-room. That is where I work.’
Grant apologised for keeping her from her morning’s dictation, but she professed herself glad to postpone for at least ten minutes her business with ‘the tiresome girl’. Grant took the ‘tiresome girl’ to be the current Fitch heroine.
Miss Fitch, too, it seemed, had retired early on Wednesday night. At half-past nine, to be exact.
‘When a family are in each other’s pocket all day long, as we are,’ she said, ‘they tend to go to their rooms early at night.’ She had watched a radio play, and had lain awake a little, half-listening for her sister coming in, but had fallen asleep quite early after all.
‘Coming in?’ Grant said. ‘Was Mrs Garrowby out, then?’
‘Yes. She was at a W.R.I. meeting.’
He asked her about Searle, then. What she had thought of him, and what in her opinion he was liable to do or not to do. She was surprisingly guarded about Searle, he thought; as if she were picking her steps; and he wondered why.
When he said: ‘Did Searle, in your opinion, show signs of being in love with your niece?’ she looked startled, and said ‘No, of course not!’ too quickly and too emphatically.
‘He did not pay her attentions?’
‘My dear man,’ Miss Fitch said, ‘any American pays a girl attentions. It is a conditioned reflex. As automatic as breathing.’
‘You think he was not seriously interested in her?’
‘I am sure that he wasn’t.’
‘Your nephew told me last night that he and Searle had telephoned to you each night on their way down the river.’
‘Did everyone in the household know about the message on Wednesday night? I mean, know where the two men were camped?’
‘I expect so. The family certainly did; and the staff were always anxious to hear about their progress so I suppose everyone knew.’
‘Thank you very much, Miss Fitch. You have been very kind.’
She called Liz in, and Liz took him to her mother and went back to the morning-room to record the doings of the latest Maureen.
Mrs Garrowby was another person without an alibi. She had been at the W.R.I. meeting at the village hall, had left there when the meeting broke up at half-past nine, had accompanied Miss Easton–Dixon part of the way home and had left her where their roads branched. She had come in about ten; or later, perhaps: she had strolled home because it was a lovely night; and had locked up the front of the house. The back door was always locked by Mrs Brett, the cook-housekeeper.
Emma Garrowby did not fool Grant for a moment. He had met her counterpart too often; that ruthless maternalism masquerading in a placid exterior. Had Searle got in the way of plans she had made for her daughter?
He asked her about Searle, and there was no step-picking at all. He had been a charming young man, she said. Quite exceptionally charming. They all liked him enormously, and were shattered by this tragedy.
Grant caught himself receiving this mentally with an expressive monosyllable.
He felt a little suffocated by Mrs Garrowby, and was glad when she went away to find Alice for him.
Alice had been walked-out on Wednesday night by the under-gardener, and had come in at a quarter past ten, whereupon the door had been locked behind her by Mrs Brett, and they had gone up together, after having a cup of cocoa, to their rooms in the back wing. Alice really was shattered by the fate that had overtaken Leslie Searle. Never, she said, had she had to do for a nicer young man. She had met dozens of young men, gentlemen and others, who considered a girl’s ankles, but Mr Searle was the only one she had ever met who considered a girl’s feet.
She had said as much to Mrs Brett, and to Edith, the parlourmaid. He would say: ‘You can do this or that, and that will save you coming up again, won’t it.’ And she could only conclude that this was an American characteristic, because no Englishman she had ever come across had ever cared two hoots whether you had to come up again or not.
Edith, too, it seemed, mourned for Leslie Searle; not because he considered her feet but because he was so good-looking. Edith proved to be very superior and refayned. Much too refayned to be walked out by an under-gardener. She had gone to her room to watch the same play that her mistress was watching. She heard Mrs Brett and Alice come up to bed, but the wing bedrooms were too far away to hear anyone come into the main block, so she did not know when Mrs Garrowby had come in.
Neither did Mrs Brett. After dinner, Mrs Brett said, the family did not worry the staff at all. Edith laid out the bed-time drinks, and after that the baize door in the hall was not normally opened again until the following morning. Mrs Brett had been nine years with Miss Fitch, and Miss Fitch could trust her to manage the staff and the staff premises.
When Grant went to the front door on his way to the car he found Walter Whitmore propped against the terrace wall. He bade Grant good morning and hoped that the alibis had been satisfactory.
It seemed to Grant that Walter Whitmore was visibly deteriorating. Even the few hours since last night had made a difference. He wondered how much a reading of this morning’s papers had contributed to the slackening of Walter’s facial structure.
‘Have the Press been hounding you yet?’ he asked.
‘They were here just after breakfast.’
‘Did you talk to them?’
‘I saw them, if that is what you mean. There wasn’t much I could say. They’ll get far more copy down at the Swan.’
‘Did your lawyer come?’
‘Yes. He’s asleep.’
‘He left London at half-past five, and saw me through the interview. He had to leave things in a hurry so he didn’t get to bed last night till two this morning. If you take my meaning.’
Grant left him with an illogical feeling of relief and went down to the Swan. He ran his car into the paved brick yard at the rear of it and knocked at the side door.
A bolt was drawn with noisy impatience, and Reeve’s face appeared in the gap. ‘It’s not a bit of use,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to wait till opening time.’
‘As a policeman, I appreciate that snub at its true value,’ Grant said. ‘But I’d like to come in and talk to you for a moment.’
‘You look more Service than Police, if you ask me,’ said the exMarine, amused, as he led the way into the bar parlour. ‘You’re the spit of a Major we had with us Up The Straights once. Vandaleur was his name. Ever come across him?’
Grant had not come across Major Vandaleur.
‘Well, what can I do for you, sir? It’s about this Searle affair, I take it.’
‘Yes. You can do two things for me. I want your considered opinion — and I mean considered — on the relations between Whitmore and Searle on Wednesday evening. And I should like a list of all the people in the bar that night and the times they left.’
Reeve had all a service man’s objective attitude to a happening. He had no desire to dress it up, or to make it reflect his own personality as an artist did. Grant felt himself relaxing. It was almost like listening to the report of one of his own men. There was no obvious ill-feeling between the men, Reeve said. He would not have noticed them at all, if they had not been isolated by the fact that no one moved away from the bar to join them. Normally, someone or other would have moved over to resume a conversation that had begun when they were at the bar together. But on Wednesday there was something in their unconsciousness of the rest that kept people from intruding.
‘They were like two dogs walking round each other,’ Reeve said. ‘No row, but a sort of atmosphere. The row might burst out any minute, if you see what I mean.’
‘Did you see Whitmore go?’
‘No one did. The boys were having an argument about who played cricket for Australia in what year. They paused when the door banged, that was all. Then Bill Maddox, seeing that Searle was alone, went over and talked to him. Maddox keeps the garage at the end of the village.’
‘Thanks. And now the list of those in the bar.’
Grant wrote the list down; county names, most of them, unchanged since Domesday Book. As he went out to get his car he said: ‘Have you any Press staying in the house?’
‘Three,’ Reeve said. ‘The Clarion, the Morning News, and the Post. They’re all out now, sucking the village dry.’
‘Also ran: Scotland Yard,’ Grant said wryly, and drove away to see Bill Maddox.
At the end of the village was a high clapboarded structure on which faded paint said: WILLIAM MADDOX AND SON, CARPENTERS AND BOATBUILDERS. At one corner of this building a bright black and yellow sign pointed into the yard at the side and said simply: GARAGE.
‘You manage to make the best of both worlds, I see,’ he said to Bill Maddox when he had introduced himself, and tilted his head at the sign.
‘Oh, MADDOX AND SON is Father, not me.’
‘I thought that perhaps you were “SON”.’
Bill looked amused. ‘Oh, no; my grandfather was SON. That’s my greatgrandfather’s business. And still the best woodworkers this side of the county, though it’s me that says it. You looking for information, Inspector?’
Grant got all the information Maddox could give him, and as he was going away Maddox said: ‘You happen to know a newspaper-man called Hopkins, by any chance?’
‘Hopkins of the Clarion? We have met.’
‘He was round here for hours this morning, and do you know what that bloke actually believes? He believes that the whole thing is just a publicity stunt to sell that book they planned to write.’
The combination of this typically Hopkins reaction and Bill’s bewildered face was too much for Grant. He leant against the car and laughed.
‘It’s a debasing life, a journalist’s,’ he said. ‘And Jammy Hopkins is a born debase-ee, as a friend of mine would say.’
‘Oh,’ said Bill, still puzzled. ‘Silly, I call it. Plain silly.’
‘Do you know where I can find Serge Ratoff, by the way?’
‘I don’t suppose he’s out of bed yet, but if he is you’ll find him propping up the counter of the post-office. The post-office is in the shop. Half-way up the street. Serge lives in the lean-to place next door to it.’
But Serge had not yet reached his daily stance by the post-office counter. He was coming down the street from the newsagent’s with a paper under his arm. Grant had never seen him before, but he knew the occupational signs well enough to spot a dancer in a village street. The limp clothes covering an apparently weedy body, the general air of undernourishment, the wilting appearance that made one feel that the muscles must be flabby as tired elastic. It was a never-ceasing amazement to Grant that the flashing creatures who tossed ballerinas about with no more effort than a slight gritting of teeth, went out of the stage door looking like under-privileged barrow boys.
He brought the car to a halt at the pavement as he came level with Serge, and greeted him.
‘That is me.’
‘I’m Detective–Inspector Grant. May I speak to you for a moment?’
‘Everyone speaks to me,’ Serge said complacently. ‘Why not you?’
‘It is about Leslie Searle.’
‘Ah, yes. He has become drowned. Delightful.’
Grant offered some phrases on the virtue of discretion.
‘Ah, discretion!’ said Serge, making five syllables of it. ‘A bourgeois quality.’
‘I understand that you had a quarrel with Searle.’
‘Nothing of the sort.’
‘I fling a mug of beer in his face, that is all.’
‘And you don’t call that a quarrel?’
‘Of course not. To quarrel is to be on a level, equal, how do you say, of the same rank. One does not quarrel with canaille. My grandfather in Russia would have taken a whip to him. This is England and decadent, and so I fling beer over him. It is a gesture, at least.’
When Grant recounted this conversation to Marta, she said: ‘I can’t think what Serge would do without that grandfather in Russia. His father left Russia when he was three — Serge can’t speak a word of Russian and he is half Neapolitan anyhow — but all his fantasies are built on that grandfather in Russia.’
‘You will understand,’ Grant said patiently, ‘that it is necessary for the police to ask all those who knew Searle for an account of their movements on Wednesday night.’
‘Is it? How tiresome for you. It is a sad life, a policeman’s. The movements. So limited, so rudimentary.’ Serge made himself into a semaphore, and worked his arms marionette-wise in a travesty of point-duty signals. ‘Tiresome. Very tiresome. Lucid, of course, but without subtlety.’
‘Where were you on Wednesday night from nine o’clock onwards?’ Grant said, deciding that an indirect approach was just a waste of time.
‘I was dancing,’ Serge said.
‘Oh. At the village hall?’
Serge looked as if he were going to faint.
‘You suggest that I, that I, Serge Ratoff, was taking part in a ‘op?’
‘Then where were you dancing?’
‘By the river.’
‘I work out the choreography for a new ballet. I burst with ideas there by the river on a spring night. They rise up in me like fountains. There is so much atmosphere there that I get drunk on it. I can do anything. I work out a very charming idea to go with the river music of Mashako. It begins with a ——’
‘What part of the river?’
‘What part of the river?’
‘How should I know? The atmosphere is the same over all.’
‘Well, did you go up river or down, from Salcott?’
‘Oh, up, most certainly.’
‘Why “most certainly”?’
‘I need the wide flat spaces to dance. Up river they are there. Down river from the village it is all steep banks and tiresome root crops. Roots. Clumsy, obscene things. They ——’
‘Could you identify the place where you were dancing on Wednesday night?’
‘Point it out to me.’
‘How can I? I don’t even remember where it was.’
‘Can you remember if you saw anyone while you were there?’
‘No one who was memorable?’
‘I trip over lovers in the grass now and then, but they — how you say, go with the house. They are part of the — the set-up. Not memorable.’
‘Do you remember, then, what time you left the river bank on Wednesday night?’
‘Ah, yes, that I remember perfectly.’
‘When was it that you left?’
‘When the shooting star fell.’
‘What time was that?’
‘How should I know? I dislike shooting stars. They make butterflies in my stomach. Though I did think that it would be a very fine ending to my ballet to have a shooting star. A Spectre de la Rose leap, you know, that would set the town talking, and show them that I can still ——’
‘Mr Ratoff, can you suggest how Leslie Searle came to be in the river?’
‘Came to be? He fell in, I suppose. Such a pity. Pollution. The river is so beautiful it should be kept for beautiful things. Ophelia. Shallott. Do you think Shallott would make a ballet? All the things she sees in the mirror? It is an idea, that, isn’t it?’
Grant gave up.
He left his car where it was and walked up the street to where the flat stone front of Hoo House broke the pinks and chromes and limes of the village’s plastered gables. The house stood on the pavement like the other cottages, but three steps to the front door raised the ground floor of the house above street level. It withdrew itself a little, in a dignity entirely natural, from everyday affairs. As Grant pulled the Victorian bell in its bright brass circle he spared a thought to bless the man, whoever he was, who had been responsible for restoring the place. He had preserved the structure but had made no attempt to turn it back into its original form and so make a museum piece of it; the tale of the centuries was there, from the worn mounting-block to the brass bell. A great amount of money had obviously been spent to bring it to its present condition of worthiness, and Grant wondered if perhaps the saving of Hoo House was sufficient to justify Toby Tullis’s existence.
The door was opened by a manservant who might have walked out of one of Toby’s plays. He stood in the doorway, polite but impenetrable; a one-man road-block.
‘Mr Tullis does not see anyone before lunch,’ he said in answer to Grant’s inquiry. ‘He works in the morning. The appointment with the Press is for two o’clock.’ He began to move his hand towards the door.
‘Do I look like Press?’ Grant said tartly.
‘Well — no, I can’t say that you do — sir.’
‘Shouldn’t you have a little tray?’ Grant said, suddenly silky.
The man turned submissively and took a silver card tray from the Jacobean chest in the hall.
Grant dropped a piece of pasteboard on to the tray and said: ‘Present my compliments to Mr Tullis and say that I would be grateful for three minutes of his time.’
‘Certainly, sir,’ said the man, not allowing his eyes to stray even to the vicinity of the card. ‘Will you be kind enough to step into the hall and wait.’
He disappeared into a room at the rear of the house, and closed the door behind him on some very unworkmanlike sounds of chatter. But he was back in a moment. Would Inspector Grant come this way, please. Mr Tullis would be very pleased to see him.
The room at the back, Grant found, looked into a large garden sloping down to the river-bank; it was another world altogether from the village street that he had just left. It was a sitting-room, furnished with the most perfect ‘pieces’ that Grant had ever seen out of a museum. Toby, in a remarkable dressing-gown, was sitting behind an array of silver coffee things; and behind him, in still more remarkable day clothes, hovered a callow and eager young man clutching a notebook. The notebook, from its virgin condition, appeared to be more a badge of office than the implement of a craft.
‘You are modest, Inspector!’ Toby said, greeting him.
‘Three minutes! Even the Press expect ten.’
It had been meant as a compliment to Grant, but the effect was merely a reminder that Toby was the most-interviewed individual in the English-speaking world and that his time was priceless. As always, what Toby did was a little ‘off-key’.
He presented the young man as Giles Verlaine, his secretary, and offered Grant coffee. Grant said that it was at once too late and too early for him, but would Mr Tullis go on with his breakfast; and Toby did.
‘I am investigating the disappearance of Leslie Searle,’ Grant said. ‘And that involves, I’m afraid, some disturbance of people who are only remotely connected with Searle. We have to ask everyone at Salcott who knew Searle to account for their time, as far as they can, on Wednesday night.’
‘Inspector, you offer me a felicity I had never hoped to enjoy. I have always been madly desirous of being asked what I was doing at nine-thirty p.m. on the night of Friday the 13th, but I never really dared to hope that it would happen to me.’
‘Now that it has happened, I hope your alibi is worthy of the occasion.’
‘It has the virtue of simplicity, at least. Giles and I spent the hours of that lovely midnight discussing Act II, Scene 1. Pedestrian, Inspector, but necessary. I am a business man.’
Grant glanced from the business man to Giles, and decided that in his present stage of discipleship the young man would probably confess to the murder if it would pleasure Toby. A little thing like providing an alibi would be merely routine.
‘And Mr Verlaine corroborates that, of course,’ Grant said.
‘Yes, oh yes, of course; of course I do; yes,’ said Giles, squandering affirmatives in the service of his patron.
‘It is a tragic thing indeed, this drowning,’ Toby said, sipping coffee. ‘The sum total of the world’s beauty is not so great that we can afford to waste any. A Shelleyan end, of course, and to that extent fitting. Do you know the Shelley Memorial at Oxford, Inspector?’
Grant knew the Memorial and it reminded him of an overboiled chicken, but he refrained from saying so. Nor did Toby expect an answer.
‘A lovely thing. Drowning is surely the ideal way of going out of this life.’
‘After a close acquaintance with a great variety of corpses taken from the water, I can’t say that I agree with you.’
Toby cocked a fish-scale eye at him, and said: ‘Don’t shatter my illusions, Inspector. You are worse than Silas Weekley. Silas is always pointing out the nastiness of life. Have you got Silas’s alibi, by the way?’
‘Not yet. I understand that he hardly knew Mr Searle.’
‘That wouldn’t stop Silas. I shouldn’t wonder if he did it as a bit of local colour.’
‘Yes. According to Silas country existence is one cesspool of rape, murder, incest, abortion, and suicide, and perhaps Silas thinks that it is time that Salcott St Mary lived up to his idea of it. Do you read our Silas, Inspector?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘Don’t apologise. It’s an acquired taste. Even his wife hasn’t acquired it yet, if all reports are true. But then, poor woman, she is so busy suckling and suffering that she probably has no time to spare for the consideration of the abstract. No one seems to have indicated to her the possibilities of contraception. Of course, Silas has a “thing” about fertility. He holds that the highest function of a woman is the manufacture of progeny. So disheartening for a woman, don’t you feel, to be weighed against a rabbit, and to know that she will inevitably be found wanting. Life, by Fertility out of Ugliness. That is how Silas sees it. He hates beauty. Beauty is an offence. He must mash it down and make it fertile. Make mulch of it. Of course he is just a little crazy, poor sweet, but it is a very profitable kind of craziness, so one need not drench oneself in tears about it. One of the secrets of a successful life is to know how to be a little profitably crazy.’
Grant wondered whether this was merely a normal sample of Toby’s chatter, or whether it was designed to edge him on to Silas Weekley. Where a man’s personality is entirely façade, as in the case of Toby Tullis, it was difficult to decide how much of the façade was barricade and how much was mere poster-hoarding.
‘You didn’t see Searle at all on Wednesday evening?’ he said.
No, Toby had not seen him. His time for the pub was before dinner, not after.
‘I don’t want to be intrusive, Inspector, but there seems to me a needless furore over a simple drowning.’
‘We have no evidence at all that Searle was drowned, and some fairly conclusive evidence that he wasn’t.’
‘That he wasn’t? What evidence have you that he wasn’t?’
‘The river has been dragged for his body.’
‘What we are investigating, Mr Tullis, is the disappearance of a man in Salcott St Mary on Wednesday night.’
‘You really ought to see the vicar, Inspector. He has the perfect solution for you.’
‘And what is that?’
‘The dear vicar believes that Searle was never really here at all. He holds that Searle was merely a demon who took human shape for a little, and disappeared when the joke grew stale or the — the juice ran dry, so to speak.’
‘I suppose you never saw Searle, Inspector?’
‘Oh, yes. I have met him.’
This surprised Toby so much that Grant was amused.
‘The demon attended a party in Bloomsbury, just before he came to Salcott,’ he said.
‘My dear Inspector, you must see the vicar. This contribution to the predilections of demons is of inestimable value to research.’
‘Why did you ask me if I had ever seen Searle?’
‘Because he was so perfectly what one would imagine a materialised demon to be.’
‘His good-looks, you mean?’
‘Was it only a question of good-looks?’ Toby said, half quizzing half in challenge.
‘No,’ said Grant. ‘No.’
‘Do you think Searle was a wrong ’un?’ Toby said, forgetting the façade for a moment and dropping into the vernacular.
‘There is no evidence whatever on that score.’
‘Ah, me,’ Toby said, resuming the façade with a small mock-sigh. ‘The blank wall of bureaucratic caution. I have few ambitions left in life, Inspector, but one of them is a passionate desire to know what made Leslie Searle tick.’
‘If I ever find out, bureaucratic caution will crack sufficiently to let you know,’ Grant said, getting up to go.
He stood for a moment looking out at the bright garden with the gleam of the river at the far end.
‘This might be a country house, miles from anywhere,’ he said.
Toby said that that was one of the charms of Hoo House, but that, of course, most of the cottages on the river side of the street had gardens that ran to the river, but most of them were broken into allotments or market gardens of some sort. It was the keeping of the Hoo House grounds as lawns and trees that made it spacious seeming.
‘And the river makes a boundary without breaking the view. It is a sadly mixed blessing, the river.’
‘No; every now and then it has an overwhelming desire to get into the house. About once in every six winters it succeeds. My caretaker woke one morning last winter to find the boat knocking against his bedroom window.’
‘You keep a boat?’
‘Just as a prop. A punt affair that is pleasant to lie in on summer afternoons.’
Grant thanked him for being so helpful, apologised once more for having intruded on his breakfast, and took his leave. Toby showed signs of wanting to show him the house, but Grant avoided that for three reasons: he had work to do, he had already seen most of the house in the illustrated press, and he had an odd reluctance to be shown the world’s finest craftsmanship by a slick little operator like Toby Tullis.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01