IT was very cold by the river. The willows shivered, and the water was pewter colour, its surface alternately wrinkled by the wind and pitted by the passing showers. As the slow hours went by Rodgers’s normally anxious face slipped into a settled melancholy, and the tip of his nose peering out from the turned-up collar of his waterproof was pink and sad. So far no intruders had come to share their vigil. The Mill House had been sworn to secrecy and had not found the secrecy any strain; Mrs Thrupp had retired to bed, still ‘heaving’; and Tommy, as police ally, was part of the dragging party. The wide sweep of the river across the alluvial land was far from road or path and devoid of dwellings, so there were no passers-by to stop and stare, to pause for a little and then go on to spread the news.
They were in a world by themselves down there by the river. A timeless world, and comfortless.
Grant and Rodgers had exhausted professional post-mortems long ago, and had got no further. Now they were just two men alone in a meadow on a chilly spring day. They sat together on the stump of a fallen willow, Grant watching the slow sweep of the questing drag, Rodgers looking out across the wide flats of the valley floor.
‘This is all flooded in winter,’ he said. ‘Looks quite lovely, too, if you could forget the damage it’s doing.’
‘“Swift beauty come to pass
Has drowned the blades that strove”,’
‘What is that?’
‘What an army friend of mine wrote about floods.
“Where once did wake and move
The slight and ardent grass.
Swift beauty come to pass
Has drowned the blades that strove.”’
‘Nice,’ Rodgers said.
‘Sadly old-fashioned,’ Grant said. ‘It sounds like poetry. A fatal defect, I understand.’
‘Is it long?’
‘Just two verses and the moral.’
‘What is the moral?’
‘“O Final Beauty, found
In many a drownèd place,
We love not less thy face
For lesser beauties drowned.”’
Rodgers thought it over. ‘That’s good, that is,’ he said. ‘Your army friend knew what he was talking about. I was never one for reading poems in books — I mean collections, but magazines sometimes put verses in to fill up the space when a story doesn’t come to the bottom of the page. You know?’
‘I read a lot of these, and every now and then one of them rings a bell. I remember one of them to this day. It wasn’t poetry properly speaking, I mean it didn’t rhyme, but it got me where I lived. It said:
“My lot is cast in inland places,
Far from sounding beach
And crying gull,
Who knew the sea’s voice from my babyhood
Must listen to a river purling
Through green fields,
And small birds gossiping
Among the leaves.”
‘Now, you see, I was bred by the sea, over at Mere Harbour, and I’ve never quite got used to being away from it. You feel hedged in, suffocated. But I never found the words for it till I read that. I know exactly how that bloke felt. “Small birds gossiping!”’
The scorn and exasperation in his voice amused Grant, but something amused him much more and he began to laugh.
‘What’s funny?’ Rodgers asked, a shade defensively.
‘I was just thinking how shocked the writers of slick detective stories would be if they could witness two police inspectors sitting on a willow tree swapping poems.’
‘Oh, them!’ Rodgers said, in the tone that in lower circles is followed by a spit. ‘Ever read any of these things?’
‘Oh, yes. Now and then.’
‘My sergeant makes a hobby of it. Collects the howlers. His record so far is ninety-two to a book. In a thing called Gods to the Rescue by some woman or other.’ He stopped to watch something and added: ‘There’s a woman coming now. Pushing a bike.’
Grant took a look and said: ‘That’s not a woman. It’s a goddess to the rescue.’
It was the unconquerable Marta, with vacuum flasks of hot coffee and sandwiches for all.
‘The bicycle was the only way I could think of for carrying them,’ she explained, ‘but it is difficult because most of the gates don’t open.’
‘How did you get through them, then?’
‘I unloaded the bicycle, lifted the thing over, and loaded it again the other side.’
‘The spirit that made the Empire.’
‘That’s as may be, but Tommy must come with me on the way back, and help me.’
‘Sure I will, Miss Hallard,’ Tommy said, his mouth full of sandwich.
The men came up from the river and were presented to Marta. It amused Grant to notice the cameraderie of those who quite patently had never heard of her, and the awed good manners of those who had.
‘I think the news has leaked out,’ Marta said. ‘Toby rang me up and asked if it was true that the river was being dragged again.’
‘You didn’t tell him why?’
‘No. Oh, no,’ she said, her face going a little bleak again at the memory of the shoe.
By two o’clock in the afternoon they had a large attendance. And by three o’clock the place was like a fair, with the local constable making valiant efforts to preserve some kind of decency.
At half-past three, when they had dragged the river almost as far as Salcott itself and had still turned up nothing. Grant went back to the Mill House and found Walter Whitmore there.
‘It was kind of you to send us the message, Inspector,’ he said. ‘I should have come to the river, but somehow I couldn’t.’
‘There was not the slightest need for you to come.’
‘Marta said that you were coming back here at teatime, so I waited here. Any — results?’
‘Not so far.’
‘Why did you want to know about the shoe, this morning?’
‘Because it was fastened when found. I wanted to know if Searle normally pulled off those shoes without unbuckling them. Apparently he always unbuckled them.’
‘Then why — how could the shoe be fastened now?’
‘Either it was sucked off by the current, or he kicked it off to make swimming easier.’
‘I see,’ Walter said, drearily.
He refused tea, and went away looking more disorientated than ever.
‘I do wish I could be as sorry for him as I should be,’ Marta said. ‘China or Indian?’
Grant had had three large cups of scalding tea (‘So bad for your inside!’ Marta said) and was beginning to feel human again, when Williams rang to report.
The report, in spite of Williams’s best endeavours, was meagre. Miss Searle didn’t like her cousin and made no bones about it. She, too, was an American, but they had been born at opposite sides of the United States and had never met until they were grown up. They had fought at sight, apparently. He sometimes rang her up when he came to England, but not this time. She had not known that he was in England.
Williams had asked her if she was out a lot, and if she thought it possible that Searle could have called, or telephoned, and not found her. She said that she had been in the Highlands, painting, and that Searle might have called her many times without her knowledge. When she was away the studio was empty and there was no one to take telephone messages.
‘Did you see the paintings?’ Grant asked. ‘The ones of Scotland.’
‘Oh, yes. The place was full of them.’
‘What were they like?’
‘Very like Scotland.’
‘I wouldn’t know. The west of Sutherland and Skye, mostly.’
‘And about his friends in this country?’
‘She said she was surprised to hear that he had any friends anywhere.’
‘She didn’t suggest to you that Searle was a wrong ’un?’
‘No, sir. Nothing like that.’
‘And she couldn’t suggest any reason why he should suddenly disappear, or where he could disappear to?’
‘No, she couldn’t. He has no people, she did tell me that. Parents dead, apparently; and he was an only child. But about his friends she seemed to know nothing. What he said about having only a cousin in England was true, anyhow.’
‘Well, thank you very much, Williams. I quite forgot to ask you this morning if you found Benny?’
‘Benny? Oh, yes. Quite easily.’
‘And did he cry?’
Grant heard Williams laugh.
‘No. He pulled a new one this time. He pretended to faint.’
‘What did that get him?’
‘It got him three free brandies and the sympathy of the multitude. We were in a pub, I need hardly say. After the second brandy he began to come to and moan about the way he was being persecuted, so they gave him a third. I was very unpopular.’
Grant considered this a fine sample of understatement.
‘Luckily it was a West End pub,’ Williams said. This, being translated, meant that there was no actual interference with his performance of his duty.
‘Did he agree to go with you for questioning?’
‘He said he would go if I let him telephone first. I said he knew quite well that he was free to telephone anyone at any hour of the day or night — that was a Post Office arrangement — but if his call was innocent I supposed he didn’t mind my being the fly on the telephone-booth wall.’
‘And did he agree?’
‘He practically dragged me into the box. And who do you think that little bastard was telephoning to?’
‘No. I think M.P.s are a bit shy of him nowadays. He overstayed his welcome last time. No, he rang up some bloke he knows who writes for the Watchman and told him the tale. Said he was no sooner “out” than some policeman or other was on his tail wanting him to go to Scotland Yard for questioning, and how was a man to go straight if he was having an innocent drink with his friends who didn’t know anything about him, and an obvious plain-clothes tec came up and wanted to speak to him, and so on and go on. Then he came with me, quite pleased with himself.’
‘Was he any help to the Yard?’
‘No, but his girl was.’
‘Did she blab?’
‘No, she was wearing Poppy’s earrings. Poppy Plumtre’s.’
‘If we didn’t happen to be taking Benny out of circulation for a little, I think his girl would put him out of it for good. She’s raving mad. He hasn’t had her very long, and it seems she was thinking of leaving him, so Benny “bought” her a pair of diamond earrings. The amount of intelligence Benny has wouldn’t inconvenience a ladybird.’
‘Did you get the rest of Poppy’s stuff?’
‘Yes. Benny coughed up. He hadn’t had time to get to a fence with them.’
‘Good work. What about the Watchman?’
‘Well, I did want to let that Watchman bit of silliness stew in his own juice. But the Super wouldn’t let me. Said it was no good having trouble that we could avoid even if we had the pleasure of seeing the Watchman making a fool of itself. So I had to ring him up and tell him.’
‘At least you must have got something back out of that.’
‘Oh, yes. Yes. I don’t deny I got some kick out of that. I said: “Mr Ritter, I’m Detective–Sergeant Williams. I was present when Benny Skoll rang you up a few hours ago.” “You were present?” he said. “But he was lodging a complaint against you!” “Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s a free country you know.” “I don’t call it so free for some,” he said. “You were dragging him away to be questioned at Scotland Yard.” I said I invited him to accompany me, and he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to.
‘Then he gave me the old spiel about hounding criminals, and Benny Skoll having paid his debt to Society, and that we had no right to hound him now that he was a free man again, and so forth. “You have shamed him before his friends,” says Mr Ritter, “and pushed him back to hopelessness. How much the better is Scotland Yard for having badgered poor little Benny Skoll this afternoon?”
‘“Two thousand pounds worth,” I said.
‘“What?” he said. “What are you talking about?”
‘“That is the amount of jewellery he stole from Poppy Plumtre’s flat on Friday night.”
‘“How do you know it was Benny?” he asked.
‘I said Benny had handed over the loot in person, with the exception of two large single diamond earrings which were gracing the ears of his current lady friend. Then I said: “Goodnight, sir”, very sweet and low, the way they do in the Children’s Hour, and hung up. You know, I think he had already written that letter about poor innocent Benny. He was so dashed. Writers must feel very flat when they’ve written something that no one can use.’
‘Wait till Mr Ritter’s flat is burgled,’ Grant said. ‘He’ll come to us screaming for the criminal’s blood.’
‘Yes, sir. Funny, isn’t it? They’re always the worst when it happens to themselves. Any word from San Francisco?’
‘Not yet, but it may come any minute. It doesn’t seem so important now.’
‘No. When I think of the whole notebook I filled interviewing bus conductors in Wickham! No good for anything but the wastepaper basket.’
‘Never throw notes away, Williams.’
‘Keep them for seven years and find a use for them?’
‘Keep them for your autobiography, if you like, but keep them. I would like to have you back here, but at the moment the work doesn’t warrant it. It is just a matter of standing about in the cold.’
‘Well, I hope something turns up before sunset, sir.’
‘I hope it does. Literally.’
Grant hung up and went back to the river-bank. The crowd had thinned a little as people began to go home to their Sunday high-tea, but the solid core who would happily starve in order to see a man’s dead body dragged from the river were still there. Grant looked at their blue moronic faces and speculated for the thousandth time since he became a policeman about what made them tick. One thing was certain; if we revived public executions tomorrow, the ‘gate’ would be of cup-tie proportions.
Rodgers had gone back to Wickham, but it seemed that the Press had arrived; both the local man and the Crome correspondent of the London dailies wanted to know why the river was being redragged. There was also the Oldest Inhabitant. The Oldest Inhabitant had a nose and chin that approximated so closely that Grant wondered how he shaved. He was a vain old party but he was the representative in this gathering of something more powerful than any of them: Race Memory; and as such was to be respected.
‘No use you draggin’ any furner’n the village,’ he said to Grant, as one giving the under-gardener instructions.
‘No. No use. She lets everything down, there. Down into the mud.’
‘She’ was evidently the river.
‘She go slow there. Tired, like. Drops everything. Then when she be round the turn, half-way to Wickham there, she go tearing off agin all light and happy. Ah. That is what she do. Drops everything she be carrying into the mud, and then she go quiet for a little, lookin’ round t’see if people notice what she done, then woops! she be off to Wickham at the tear.’ He cocked a surprisingly clear blue eye at Grant. ‘Sly,’ he said. ‘That’s what she be. Sly!’
Rodgers had said, when first he had talked to him, that it was no use dragging below Salcott St Mary, and he had accepted the local man’s verdict without asking for an explanation. Now here was Race Memory offering him the explanation.
‘Not much use you draggin’ anyway,’ said Race Memory, wiping the drop from its nose with a gesture that was subtly contemptuous.
‘Why? Don’t you believe there is a body there?’
‘Oh, ah! Body there all right. But that mud there, it don’t give up nothin’ ‘cept in its own time.’
‘And when is that likely to be, would you say?’
‘Oh! Any time ‘tween a thousand years and tomorrow. Powerful sticky that mud be. Quicksand mud. When my great-grandfer were a little boy he had a barra run down the bank, like, into the water. Quite shallow it were there. He could see the barra but he were frightened, see, to wade in for it. So he run to the cottage. No more’n a few yards. And brung his father out to reach the barra for him. But the mud had it. Ah. The mud had it in the time you’d turn yer back. Not a blink of the barra left. Not even when they got a rake and dragged for it. The mud had it, see. Cannibal mud, that is, I tell ee, cannibal mud.’
‘But you say it does give up its victims sometimes.’
‘Oh. Ah. Happen.’
‘When? In flood?’
‘Nah! In flood she just spread herself. Go broody and drop more mud’n ever. Nah. But sometime she be taken aback. Then she let go in surprise.’
‘Ah. Same as she were a week since. Cloud come and hit the high country above Otley and burst there, and pour water into the river like someone pouring bathwater away. She have no time to spread out decent and quiet. The water come down channel like a scouring brush and churn her up. Then happen sometimes she loose something from the mud.’
It was a poor outlook, Grant felt, if he had to wait until the next cloudburst to recover Searle’s body. The gathering greyness of the day depressed him; in a couple of hours they would have to call it off. By that time, moreover, they would have reached Salcott, and if they had found nothing, what hope was there? He had had a horrible feeling all day that they were merely scratching the surface of that ‘immemorial mud’. If this second dragging proved useless, what then? No inquest. No case. No nothing.
By the time a watery sunset was bathing the scene in pallid light they were within fifty yards of the end of their beat. And at that moment Rodgers reappeared and produced an envelope from the pocket of his coat.
‘This came for you when I was at the station. It’s the report from the States.’
There was no urgency about it now, but he opened it and read it through.
The San Francisco police had no record against Leslie Searle, and knew of none. He was in the habit of coming to the Coast for the winter months. For the rest of the year he travelled and photographed abroad. He lived well but very quietly, and there was no record of expensive parties or other extravagances of conduct. He had no wife with him and no history of emotional entanglements. The San Francisco police had no record of his origins but they had applied to the Publicity department at Grand Continental, for which studio Searle had photographed Lotta Marlow and Danny Minsky, the reigning stars of the moment. According to Grand Continental, Searle had been born in Jobling, Conn. Only child of Durfey Searle and Christina Mattson. Police at Jobling, Conn., asked about the Searles, said they left town more than twenty years ago and went South somewhere. Searle was a chemist, with a passion for photography, but that is all anyone remembered about them.
Well, it was a dull enough report. An uninspiring collection of unhelpful facts. No clue to the thing he had wanted most; Searle’s intimates in the States. No illumination on Searle himself. But something in the report rang a bell in his head.
He read it over again, waiting for that warning click in his mind that was like the sound a clock makes when it is preparing to strike. But this time there was no reaction.
Puzzled, he read it through again, slowly. What was it that had made that warning sound in his mind? He could find nothing. Still puzzled, he folded up the paper and put it away in his pocket.
‘We’re finished, I suppose you know?’ Rodgers said. ‘We’ll find nothing now. Nothing has ever been taken back from the river at Salcott. In this part of the country they have a proverb. When they want to say: Give a thing up, or: Put it out of your mind for good, they say: “Throw it over the bridge at Salcott”.’
‘Why don’t they dredge the channel instead of letting all this stuff silt up on them,’ Grant said, out of temper. ‘If they did they wouldn’t have the river flooding their houses every second winter.’
Rodgers’s long face shortened into amusement and kindliness. ‘If you’d ever smelt a bucket of Rushmere mud, you’d think a long time before you’d willingly arrange for it to be dragged up in wagon loads and carted through the street. Shall I stop them now?’
‘No,’ said Grant, mulishly. ‘Let them go on dragging as long as the light lasts. Who knows, we may make history and be the first to take something back from the river at Salcott. I never did believe in those country superstitions, anyhow.’
They did go on dragging till the light went, but the river gave nothing back.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01