WHEN GRANT walked into the Mill House at a quarter to seven he felt that he had riddled Salcott St Mary through a small-meshed sieve, and what he had left in the sieve was exactly nothing. He had had a very fine cross-section of life in England, and he was by that much the richer. But towards solving the problem that had been entrusted to him he had advanced not one foot.
Marta greeted him with her best contralto coo and drew him in to peace and refreshment. The living-room of the Mill House stood over the water, and in the daytime its furnishings swam in the wavering light; a green sub-aqueous light. But this evening Marta had drawn the curtains over the last of the sunset, and shut out the river light; she had prepared a refuge of warmth and reassurance, and Grant, tired and perplexed, was grateful to her.
‘I am so glad that it is not Walter who has disappeared,’ she said, wafting him to a chair with one of her favourite gestures and beginning to pour sherry.
‘Glad?’ Grant said, remembering Marta’s expressed opinion of Walter.
‘If it was Walter who had disappeared, I should be a suspect, instead of a sleeping partner.’
Grant thought that Marta as sleeping partner must have much in common with sleeping dogs.
‘As it is I can sit at the side of the law and see the wheels go round. Are you being brilliant, my dear?’
‘I’m flummoxed,’ Grant said brutally, but Marta took it in her stride.
‘You feel that way only because you are tired and hungry; and probably suffering from dyspepsia, anyhow, after having to eat at the White Hart for two days. I’m going to leave you with the sherry decanter and go down and get the wine. Cellar-cooled Moselle. The kitchen is under this room, and the cellar is under the kitchen, and the wine comes up as cold as running water. Oh dear, I promised myself I wasn’t going to think of running water any more today. I drew the curtains to shut out the river; I’m not so stuck on the river as I used to be. Perhaps we’ll both feel better after the Moselle. When I’ve brought the wine up from the cellar I’m going to cook you an omelet as only I can cook one, and then we’ll settle down. So relax for a little and get back your appetite. If the sherry isn’t dry enough for you there’s some Tio Pepe in the cupboard; but me, I think it is over-rated stuff.’
She went away, and Grant blessed her that she had not plagued him with the questions that must have been crowding her mind. She was a woman who not only appreciated good food and good drink but was possessed of that innate good sense that is half-way to kindness. He had never seen her to better advantage than in this unexpected country home of hers.
He lay back in the lamplight, his feet to the whickering logs, and relaxed. It was warm and very quiet. There was no river song: the Rushmere was a silent stream. No sound at all except the small noises of the fire. On the couch opposite him lay a newspaper, and behind it stood a book-case, but he was too tired to fetch either paper or book. At his elbow was a shelf of reference books. Idly he read the titles till he came to the London telephone book. The sight of those familiar volumes sent his mind flying down a new channel. They had said this evening, when he talked to the Yard, that so far Searle’s cousin had not bothered to get in touch with them. They were not surprised by that, of course; the news had broken only that morning, and the artist cousin might live anywhere from the Scilly Isles to a farm in Cumberland; she might never read newspapers anyway; she might, if it came to that, be entirely indifferent to any fate that might overtake her cousin. After all, Searle had said quite frankly that they did not care for each other.
But Grant still wanted to talk to someone who knew Searle’s background; or at least a little of that background. Now, relaxed and at leisure for the first time in two days, he put out his hand for the S volume, and, on the chance that she lived in London and that she and Searle were the children of two brothers, turned up the Searles. There was a Miss Searle who lived in Holly Pavement, he noticed. Holly Pavement was in Hampstead and was a well-known artist’s colony. On an impulse he picked up the telephone and asked for the London number.
‘One hour’s delay. Call you back,’ said the triumphant voice at the other end.
‘Priority,’ Grant said. And gave his credentials.
‘Oh,’ said the voice, disappointed but game. ‘Oh, well, I’ll see what I can do.’
‘On the contrary,’ Grant said, ‘I’ll see what you can do,’ and hung up.
He put the telephone book back in its place, and pulled out Who’s Who in the Theatre to amuse himself with while he waited. Some of it made him feel very old. Actors and actresses he had never heard of already had long lists of successes to their credit. The ones he knew had pages of achievement stretching back into the already-quaint past. He began to look up the people he knew, as one does in the index of an autobiography. Toby Tullis, son of Sydney Tullis and his wife Martha (Speke). It was surprising to think that a national institution like Toby Tullis had ever been subjected to the processes of conception and brought into this world by the normal method. He observed that Toby’s early days as an actor were decently shrouded under: ‘Was at one time an actor.’ His one-time colleagues, Grant knew, would deny with heat that he had ever been even approximately an actor. On the other hand, Grant thought, remembering this morning, his whole life was an ‘act’. He had created a part for himself and had played it ever since.
It was surprising, too, to find that Marguerite Merriam (daughter of Geoffrey Merriam and his wife Brenda (Mattson)) had been considerably older than her adolescent fragility had led one to believe. Perhaps if she had lived that adolescent quality would have worn thin, and her power to break the public heart would have declined. That was, no doubt, what Marta had meant when she said that if she had lived another ten years her obituaries would have been back-page stuff.
Marta (daughter of Gervase Wing–Strutt, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P. and his wife Anne (Hallard)) was, of course, entirely orthodox. She had been educated at the best schools and had sneaked her way on to the stage by the back-door of elocution like so many of her well-bred predecessors. Grant hoped that when in the next edition — or at most the next after — the letters D.B.E. followed Marta’s name, it would comfort Gervase Wing–Strutt and his wife Anne for being fooled by their daughter a quarter of a century ago.
He had not even taken the cream off the possible entertainment provided by this enchanting volume when the telephone rang.
‘Your call to London is through. Will you go ahead, please,’ the voice said.
‘Hullo,’ Grant said. ‘Could I speak to Miss Searle?’
‘Miss Searle speaking,’ said a pleasant voice, a shade on the efficient side.
‘Miss Searle, I’m truly sorry to bother you, but have you, by any chance, a cousin called Leslie Searle?’
‘I have, and if he has borrowed money from you you are wasting your time if you think that I will pay it back.’
‘Oh, no. It is nothing like that. Your cousin has disappeared while staying with friends in the country and we hoped that you might help us to trace him. My name is Grant. I’m a Detective–Inspector at Scotland Yard.’
‘Oh,’ said the voice, considering but not apparently dismayed. ‘Well, I don’t see what help I can be to you. Leslie and I never had much to do with each other. He wasn’t my cup of tea, and I certainly am not his.’
‘It would be some help if I could come and talk to you about him. Would you, perhaps, be at home tomorrow afternoon if I called?’
‘Well, tomorrow afternoon I was going to a concert at the Albert Hall.’
‘Oh. Then I might manage it just before lunch if that is any better for you.’
‘You are very accommodating for a policeman,’ she remarked.
‘Criminals don’t find us that way,’ he said.
‘I thought providing accommodation for criminals was the end and object of Scotland Yard. It’s all right, Inspector. I won’t go to the concert. It is not a very good one anyhow.’
‘You’ll be in if I call?’
‘Yes, I’ll be here.’
‘That is very kind of you.’
‘That over-rated photographer didn’t take the family jewels with him when he left, did he?’
‘No. Oh, no. He has just disappeared.’
She gave a small snort. It was apparent that whatever Miss Searle had to tell him about her cousin there would be no suppression of facts or false modesty in her story.
As Grant hung up, Marta came back preceded by a small boy carrying wood for the fire. The boy put the logs neatly in the hearth, and then eyed Grant with respectful awe.
‘Tommy has something he wants to ask you,’ Marta said. ‘He knows that you are a detective.’
‘What is it, Tommy?’
‘Will you show me your revolver, sir?’
‘I would if I had it with me. But it’s in a drawer in Scotland Yard, I’m afraid.’
Tommy looked cut to the heart. ‘I thought you always carried one. The American cops do. You can shoot, can’t you, sir?’
‘Oh, yes,’ Grant said relieving the awful fear that was clearly dawning. ‘I’ll tell you what, next time you come to London, you can come to Scotland Yard and I’ll show you the revolver.’
‘I can come to the Yard? Oh, thank you. Thank you very much, sir. That would be just bonza.’
He went, with a polite goodnight, in an aura of radiance a foot thick.
‘And parents think they can cure boys of liking lethal weapons by not giving them toy soldiers,’ Marta said, as she set the omelet out on the table. ‘Come and eat.’
‘I owe you for a trunk call to London.’
‘I thought that you were going to relax.’
‘I was but I got an idea, and it has taken me the first step forward in this case since I took it over.’
‘Good!’ she said. ‘Now you can feel happy and let your digestive juices do their work.’
A small round table had been set near the fire, with candles for pleasure and decoration, and they ate together in a friendly quiet. Mrs Thrupp came up with the chicken, and was introduced, and was volubly grateful for Grant’s invitation to Tommy. After that peace was uninterrupted. Over coffee the talk went to Silas Weekley and the oddness of the ménage in the lane.
‘Silas prides himself on living “working-class”, whatever that may mean. None of his children is going to begin any better off than he did. He’s a frightful bore about his elementary school origins. You would think he was the first elementary schoolboy to go to Oxford since the place was founded. He’s the classic case of inverted snobbery.’
‘But what does he do with all the money he makes?’
‘God knows. Buries it under the floor of that little hut where he works, perhaps. No one is ever allowed to go inside that hut.’
‘I interviewed him in that hut this morning.’
‘Alan! How clever of you! What was inside?’
‘One well-known writer, doing very little work.’
‘I expect he sweats blood over his writing. He has no imagination, you know. I mean, he has no idea how another person’s mind works. So his situations, and his characters’ reaction to the situations, are all clichés. He sells because of his “earthiness”, his “elemental strength”, God save us all. Let us push back the table and get nearer the fire.’
She opened a cupboard, and said in an excellent imitation of the boys who used to sell things off trays on railway platforms: ‘Drambuie, Benedictine, Strega, Grand Marnier, Bols, Chartreuse, Slivovitz, Armagnac, Cognac, Rakia, Kümmel, Various French Sirops of Unspeakable Sweetness, and Mrs Thrupp’s Ginger Cordial!’
‘Is it your intention to seduce official secrets from the Criminal Investigation Department?’
‘No, darling; I am offering homage to your palate. You are one of the few men I know who possesses such a thing.’
She put the Chartreuse and the liqueur glasses on a tray and arranged her long legs in comfort on the couch.
‘Now tell me,’ she said.
‘But I have nothing to tell,’ he protested.
‘I don’t mean that kind of tell. I mean talk at me. Pretend I’m your wife — which God forbid — and just make an audience of me. For instance, you don’t really think that that poor stick Walter Whitmore ever got up enough red blood to tap the Searle boy on the head, do you?’
‘No, I don’t think so. Sergeant Williams calls Walter a push-ee, and I think I agree with him.’
‘Calls him a what?’
Grant explained, and Marta said: ‘And how right your Sergeant Williams is! Walter’s taking-off is long overdue.’
‘He may do his own taking-off if this affair isn’t cleared up.’
‘Yes, I suppose he is having a bad time, poor silly creature. The gossip in a small country place is deadly. Have you had any answer to your police appeal, by the way? I heard it at one o’clock.’
‘No, not up to six-forty-five, when I last talked to the Yard. I gave them this number for the next two hours. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘Why do you think he might have been given a lift?’
‘Because if he isn’t in the river he must have walked away from it.’
‘Of his own accord? But that would be a very odd thing to do.’
‘He may be suffering from amnesia. There are five possibilities altogether.’
‘On Wednesday night Searle walked away down that lane, healthy and sober; and he has not been near since. The possibilities are: one, that he fell into the water accidentally and was drowned; two, that he was murdered and thrown in the river; three, that he walked away for reasons of his own; four, that he wandered away because he forgot who he was and where he was going; five, that he was kidnapped.’
‘We don’t know anything about his American life; we have to make allowances for that. He may even have come to this country to get away from the States for a little. I shan’t know about that until we have a report about him from the Coast — if then! Tell me, what did you think of Searle?’
‘In what way?’
‘Well, would you say he was a practical joker, for instance?’
‘Yes. Liz Garrowby was against that too. She said he wouldn’t think a practical joke funny. How impressed do you think he was with Liz Garrowby? You were there to dinner.’
‘Impressed enough to make Walter sick with jealousy.’
‘They were nice together, Leslie and Liz. They were a natural pair, somehow. Something that Walter and Liz will never be. I don’t think Walter knows anything about Liz; and I had an idea that Leslie Searle knew quite a lot.’
‘Did you like him when you met him? You took him back with you that night, after dinner.’
‘Yes. Yes to both. I liked him with reservations.’
‘What kind of reservations?’
‘It’s difficult to describe. I could hardly take my eyes off him, and yet he never struck me as being — real. That sounds mad, doesn’t it.’
‘You mean there was something phony about him?’
‘Not in the accepted sense. He was obviously what he said he was. In any case, our Miss Easton–Dixon bears witness to that, as you probably know.’
‘Yes, I was talking to Miss Easton–Dixon this afternoon about him. Her photograph of him may prove very useful. What did you and Searle talk about, the night you brought him back with you?’
‘Oh, cabbages and kings. People he had photographed. People we had both met. People he wanted to meet. We spent a long time in mutual adoring of Danny Minsky, and another long time in furious disagreement about Marguerite Merriam. Like everyone else he thought Marguerite the world’s genius, and wouldn’t hear a word against her. I got so annoyed with him that I told him a few home-truths about Marguerite. I was ashamed of myself afterwards. It’s a mean thing to break children’s toys.’
‘I expect it did him good. He was too old to have the facts of life kept from him.’
‘I hear you’ve been collecting alibis today.’
‘How did you hear?’
‘The way I hear everything. From Mrs Thrupp. Who are the unlucky people who have none?’
‘Practically the whole village, including Miss Easton–Dixon.’
‘Our Dixie is “out”. Who else?’
‘Miss Lavinia Fitch.’
‘Dear Lavinia!’ Marta said, laughing outright at the thought of Miss Fitch on murder bent.
‘Poor Liz must be having a thin time over this. I think she was half in love with the boy.’
Marta paused to consider this. ‘Do you know, I wouldn’t put it past the woman. She would do it and not turn a hair because she would persuade herself that it was the right thing to do. She’d even go to church afterwards and ask God’s blessing on it.’
‘N-o, I hardly think so. Toby would find some other way of getting even. Something much less risky for Toby and just as satisfying. Toby is fertile in inventing small revenges. I don’t think he would need to murder anyone.’
‘I wonder. I wonder. Yes, I think Silas would commit murder. Especially if the book he happened to be writing at the moment was not going well. The books are Silas’s outlet for his hatred, you see. If that was dammed up he might kill someone. Someone who seemed to him rich and well-favoured and undeservedly fortunate.’
‘You think Weekley mad?’
‘Oh, yes. Not certifiable perhaps, but definitely unbalanced. Is there any truth, by the way, in the rumour of a quarrel between Walter and the Searle boy?’
‘Whitmore denies that it was a quarrel. He says it was “just a spat”.’
‘So there was bad feeling between them?’
‘I don’t know if we have even evidence for that. A temporary annoyance is hardly the same thing as bad feeling. Men can disagree quite fundamentally in a pub of an evening without any fundamental bad feeling on either side.’
‘Oh, you are maddening. Of course there was bad feeling, and of course we know why. It was about Liz.’
‘Having no connections in the Fourth Dimension, I couldn’t say,’ Grant said, mocking her jumped-to conclusion. ‘Whitmore said Searle was “provocative”. What, can you tell me from your point of vantage, would he be provocative about?’
‘He probably told Walter how little he appreciated Liz, and that if Walter didn’t mend his ways he would take Liz from him, and if Walter thought he wasn’t up to it he was wrong and he would get Liz to pack and walk away with him by a week next Tuesday, and there was five pounds that said he was right. And Walter said, very huffy and stiff, that in this country we did not bet on the possible bestowal of women’s favours, at least gentlemen didn’t, and to put five pounds on Liz was simply insulting (Walter has no sense of the ridiculous at all, you know; that is how he perpetrates those broadcasts and endears himself to old ladies who avoid the country like the plague and wouldn’t know a wren if they saw one); and Leslie probably said that if he thought a fiver too little he was willing to make it ten, since if Liz had been engaged to a prig like Walter for nearly twelve months she was just ripe for a change and the ten would be just found money, and so then Walter got up and went out and banged the door behind him.’
‘How did you know about the banged door?’
‘My dear soul, everyone in Orfordshire knows about the banged door by this time. That is why Walter is suspect Number One. Is that all your list of Lacking Alibis, by the way?’
‘No, there is Serge Ratoff.’
‘Oh. What was Serge doing?’
‘Dancing on the greensward by the river in the dark.’
‘That has the ring of truth, anyhow.’
‘Why? Have you seen him?’
‘No. But it is just the kind of thing Serge would do. He is still full of the idea of a come-back, you know. Before the scene about Leslie Searle, he was planning the come-back as a way of pleasing Toby; now he is planning it just to “show” Toby.’
‘Where do you get all this inside knowledge?’
‘I haven’t played parts for twenty-five years on just the producer’s directions,’ she said.
He looked across at her, elegant and handsome in the firelight, and thought of all the different parts that he had seen her play: courtesans and frustrated hags, careerists and domestic doormats. It was true that actors had a perception, an understanding of human motive, that normal people lacked. It had nothing to do with intelligence, and very little to do with education. In general knowledge Marta was as deficient as a not very bright child of eleven; her attention automatically slid off anything that was alien to her own immediate interests and the result was an almost infantine ignorance. He had seen the same thing in hospital nurses, and sometimes in overworked G.P.s. But put a script in her hands, and from a secret and native store of knowledge she drew the wherewithal to build her characterisation of the author’s creation.
‘Supposing that this really is a case of homicide,’ he said. ‘Judging entirely on looks and recent form, so to speak, who would you put your money on?’
She considered this for a little, turning her empty liqueur glass in the firelight.
‘Emma Garrowby, I think,’ she said at last. ‘Could Emma have done it? Physically speaking, I mean.’
‘Yes. She left Miss Easton–Dixon where their ways parted on Wednesday night, and after that time was her own. No one knows what time she came back to Trimmings. The others had gone to bed; or rather, to their rooms. It is Mrs Garrowby who locks up the front of the house, anyhow.’
‘Yes. Ample time. It isn’t so very far from Trimmings to that bend in the river. I do wonder what Emma’s shoes were like on Thursday morning. Or did she clean them herself.’
‘Believe me, if there was any unwonted mud on the shoes she cleaned them herself. Mrs Garrowby looks to me a very methodical person. Why do you pick on Emma Garrowby?’
‘Well, I take it you commit murder because you are one-idead. Or have become one-idead. As long as you have a variety of interests you can’t care about any one of them to the point of murder. It is when you have all your eggs in the same basket, or only one egg left in the basket, that you lose your sense of proportion. Do I make myself clear, Inspector Grant?’
‘Good. Have some more Chartreuse. Well, Emma seems to me the most concentrated of the possible suspects. No one could call Serge concentrated, except on the thing of the moment. Serge spends his life having flaring rows, and has never shown signs of killing anyone. The farthest he ever gets is to fling whatever happens to come handiest.’
‘Lacking a whip,’ Grant said; and told her of his interview with Serge. ‘And Weekley?’
‘On form, to use your own excellent metaphor, Silas is only a pound or two behind Emma; but quite definitely behind. Silas has his own success, his family, the books he is going to write in the future (even if they are just the same old ones over again in different words); Silas’s interest isn’t channelled the way Emma’s is. Short of having a brain-storm, some unreasoning hatred, Silas would have no urge to get rid of Leslie. Nor would Toby. Toby’s life simply corruscates with variety. Toby would never think of killing anyone. As I told you, he has too many other ways of making the score even. But Emma. Emma has nothing but Liz.’
She thought it over for a moment, and Grant let the silence lie uninterrupted.
‘You should have seen Emma when Walter and Liz announced their engagement,’ she said at last. ‘She — she positively glittered. She was a walking Christmas tree. It was what she had always wanted, and against all probability it had happened. Walter, who met all the clever and beautiful women of this generation, had fallen in love with Liz and they were going to be married. Walter would get Trimmings one day, and Lavinia’s fortune, so even if his vogue went they would have as much of this world’s goods as anyone could possibly want or use. It was a fairy-tale come true. She was floating just an inch or two off the ground. Then Leslie Searle came.’ Marta, the actress, let the silence come back. And being also an artist she left it unbroken.
The logs slipped and spluttered, sending up fresh jets of flame, and Grant lay still in his chair and thought about Emma Garrowby.
And about the two things that Marta did not know.
It was odd that Marta’s chosen suspect should occupy the same area as the two unaccountables in this case: the glove in Searle’s drawer, and the space in the photographic box.
Emma. Emma Garrowby. The woman who had brought up a younger sister and when that sister moved out from under her wing married a widower with a young child. She channelled her interest as naturally as Toby Tullis spread his wide, didn’t she? She had been radiant —‘a walking Christmas tree’— over the engagement; and in the period since that engagement (it was five months, he happened to know, not twelve) her initial delight must have spread and amplified to something much more formidable; an acceptance; a sense of achievement, of security. The engagement had stood whatever small shocks it had encountered in these five months, and Emma must have got used to thinking of it as safe and immutable.
And then, as Marta said, Leslie Searle.
Searle with his charm and his fly-by-night life. Searle with his air of being not quite of this world. No one could view this modern shower of gold with more instant distrust than Emma Garrowby.
‘What would fit into a space 10½ inches, by 3½ by 4?’ he asked.
‘A hair brush,’ said Marta.
There was a game played by psychologists, Grant remembered, where the victim said the first thing that occurred to him on hearing a given word. It must work out pretty well, all things considered. He had put this same proposition to Bill Maddox, and Maddox, as unhesitatingly as Marta had said ‘A hairbrush’, had said ‘A spanner’. He remembered that Williams had proffered a bar of soap.
‘A set of dominoes. A box of envelopes? No, a shade on the small side. Packs of cards? Enough cards to set up on a desert island! Table cutlery. The family spoons. Someone been secreting the family silver?’
‘No. It is just something I wondered about.’
‘If it’s the Trimmings silver, just let it go, my dear. It wouldn’t fetch thirty shillings the lot at an auction sale.’ Her eye went in unconscious satisfaction to the Georgian simplicity of her own implements on the table behind her. ‘Tell me, Alan, it wouldn’t be indiscreet or unprofessional, would it, to tell me who is your own favourite for the part?’
‘It would be both unprofessional and indiscreet. But I don’t think there is any wild indiscretion in telling you that I don’t think there is one.’
‘What! You really think Leslie Searle is still alive? Why?’
Why indeed, he asked himself. What was there in the set-up that gave him this feeling of being at a performance? Of being pushed into the stalls so that an orchestra pit intervened between him and reality. The Assistant Commissioner had once said to him in an unwonted moment of expansiveness that he had the most priceless of all attributes for his job: flair. ‘But don’t let it ride you, Grant,’ he had said. ‘Keep your eye on the evidence.’ Was this a sample of letting his flair ride him? The chances were ninety-nine to one that Searle had fallen into the river. All the evidence pointed that way. If it hadn’t been for the complication of the quarrel with Whitmore, he, Grant, would not have entered into the affair at all; it would have been a simple case of ‘missing believed drowned’.
And yet. And yet. Now you see it, now you don’t. That old conjurer’s phrase. It haunted him.
Half consciously he said it aloud.
Marta stared and said: ‘A conjuring trick? By whom? For what?’
‘I don’t know. I just have a strong feeling that I’m being taken for a ride!’
‘You think that Leslie just walked away somehow?’
‘Or someone planned it to look like that. Or something. I have a strong feeling of watching something being sawn in half.’
‘You’re overworking,’ Marta said. ‘Where do you think Leslie could have disappeared to? Unless he just came back to the village and lay doggo somewhere.’
Grant came wide awake and regarded her with admiration. ‘Oddly enough,’ he said, amused, ‘I had never thought of that. Do you think Toby is hiding him to make things difficult for Walter?’
‘No, I know it doesn’t make sense. But neither does your idea about his walking away. Where would he walk to in the middle of the night in nothing but flannels and a raincoat?’
‘I shall know more about that when I have seen his cousin tomorrow.’
‘He has a cousin? How surprising. It’s like finding Mercury with an inlaw. Who is he?’
‘It’s a woman. A painter, I understand. A delightful creature who has given up an Albert Hall Sunday afternoon concert to be at home for me. I used your telephone to make an assignation with her.’
‘And you expect her to know why Leslie walked away in the middle of the night in nothing but flannels and a raincoat?’
‘I expect her to be able to suggest where Leslie might have been headed for.’
‘To borrow the callboy’s immortal phrase: I hope it keeps fine for you,’ Marta said.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01