Authors: Edmund Crispin
Tags: #Gervase Fen
“What about the imbecile? Why was he
, that’s to say?”
“Oh, that… Well, the thing about it is, you see, that he dotes on Mrs. Foley—doggishly, I mean, nothing unpleasant—he’s always hung around her a good deal. He’s the old-style Village idiot, really—quite harmless, born in Yeopool, lived there all his life; but ever since he was a kid, Mrs. Foley’s been the only person he’s seemed to like or trust, so it’s quite logical he should have attacked Foley, and pushed him into the river, when he saw Foley mauling her.”
“Quite,” Fen murmured. “Did she go to a doctor, afterwards, by any chance—or wasn’t she hurt badly enough for that?”
Best raised his eyebrows. “Still sceptical, sir? Yes, she did see a doctor, that same evening, and he’ll tell you she was horribly bruised, with actual marks of the boot-nails on her flesh in some places. Nothing phoney about that, in fact—quite enough. actually, if she
killed him, to justify a plea of self-defence.”
“Manslaughter, more likely, I should have thought,” said Fen. “And even a quite nominal sentence for manslaughter would prevent her from touching the insurance money.”
Best’s expression hardened. “You’ve got it in for her, sir, haven’t you? You
her found guilty.”
But Fen shook his head.
“Far from it,” he answered. “There’s one person I should like to expose, if a certain guess of mine is right; but it’s not the unfortunate Mrs. Foley.” He rose. “And now I must go and look for your Chief.”
Commander Bowen was a small, slim, cheerful man with a springy step. a brown face, and neat curly grey hair. As Best had predicted, he had heard of Fen, and seemed pleased enough to meet him. And although his assent to Fen’s presence at the interview with Mrs. Foley was unenthusiastic, he did in fact give it. Accordingly, they were soon settled in Best’s office, which Best himself had in the meantime grudgingly vacated; a shorthand writer was summoned to stand by; and presently Mrs. Foley and the imbecile, together with the Yeopool village constable, were ushered in and made as comfortable as the furniture, and their own several anxieties, permitted.
The woman was much as she had been when Fen had seen her earlier; though it seemed to him that on the present occasion her face was rather more flushed, and her breathing rather more rapid. She sat bolt upright in her chair. twisting a cotton handkerchief between her hands, with the idiot close beside her. And whereas she appeared more nervous now than she had been at the Mortuary, the half-wit, in contrast, was clearly more at ease. It was impossible, Fen found, to tell how much he understood of what was going on: little enough, probably. Only when the woman addressed him directly did he show any sort of intelligence, and then he would grow restless and excitable and uncertain, like a dog given an order which it does not understand. Bowen made no attempt to question him. He addressed himself solely to the woman, with an occasional aside to the village constable; and his manner, though brisk, was sympathetic and straightforward. For the record, even details which all of them knew were elicited. And so it was that for the first time Fen heard the story in a connected, coherent form.
Mary Foley was thirty-seven years old, she said; she had been married to Edgar Foley for nearly sixteen years, but they had had no children. They lived at Rose Cottage, a farm-labourer’s cottage on the bank of the river just outside Yeopool, and Foley had worked for Mr. Thomas of Manor Farm, on whose land the cottage stood. Foley (she always spoke of him thus formally, never using his Christian name) had not been a good husband to her; he had beaten her on a number of occasions.
“Nor I couldn’t stop ‘un, neither,” the village constable interposed indignantly at this point. “Us all knew ‘twas goin’ on—as you knew it yourself, sir—but ‘er wouldn’t never say nothin’ against ‘im, so what was us to do?”
“I'd taken ‘im for better or for worse, ‘adn’t I?” she said lifelessly. “‘Twasn’t no one else’s business ‘ow ‘e treated me.”
For a moment Bowen seemed to consider debating this; but he thought better of it, and resumed his questions. Last Monday, then-
Last Monday, she said, she had left the cottage at about six o’clock with a view to strolling along the river bank and meeting Foley on his way home. Orry (this was the idiot) had been at the cottage during the afternoon, and she had given him tea and a piece of cake. But she had supposed that by the time she set out Orry was back in the village, for he knew that Foley disliked him and was normally careful to keep his distance whenever the husband was at home. Mrs Foley had not walked far; about a hundred yards from the cottage she had halted and waited, and after some ten minutes Foley had joined her. He had been in an ill humour and had picked a quarrel with her, accusing her of idleness; and when she had attempted to defend herself he had knocked her down and kicked her. She was still not very clear about what had happened next; she had a dim recollection, she said, of Orry’s shambling forward from the bushes and pushing her husband in the back, and that was all. In any case, the upshot of it was that by the time she had recovered her wits it was impossible to save him, even if she had been a swimmer, which she was not.
The idiot, who had watched her eagerly during the latter part of her story, at this point nodded vigorously, half rose from his chair, and made violent thrusting movements with his long arms. It was confirmation, of a sort. Bowen cleared his throat uncertainly.
“So that’s about the lot,” he said; and to Fen: “The river was dragged, of course, but the body must have got caught on an—ah—underwater snag of some kind, and it didn’t reappear till yesterday… Well, Mrs. Foley, I don’t think there’s anything more for you to worry about now. You’ll have to give evidence at the inquest, of course, but that won’t be at all a long business. As to Orry, we’ll have to see what we can do about getting him into a—a Home.” He turned back to Fen again, indulgently. “Is there anything you’d care to ask, Professor?”
“Just one thing,” said Fen affably, “if you don’t mind. It’s this: after the recovery of Foley’s body, what did you do with his boots?”
Bowen stiffened; and Fen, searching the man’s eyes, saw in them the justification of what he had already guessed.
“His boots, sir?” said Bowen coldly. “Are you joking?”
“No,” said Fen, unperturbed, “I’m not joking. What became of them?”
For a split second Bowen was obviously in the throes of some rapid tactical calculation; then: “The body was recovered stark naked, sir,” he answered, all at once agreeable again: “As the Clapton constable, who—ah—landed it, will tell you. A week’s immersion—rocks—the rapidity of the current—”
“Just so.” Fen smiled, but it was not a pleasant smile. “So now, Commander, there’s only one further question I need trouble you with. And it’s quite a small point, really…”
He leaned forward in his chair.
“What are you blackmailing Mrs. Foley
he enquired. “Money, or love?”
There are some episodes in Superintendent Best’s professional career which he has no joy in recalling; and among these, the afternoon of that particular Monday takes pride of place. It is nothing if not disconcerting to be summoned from a tranquil cup of tea to hear a woman vehemently accuse your Chief of the nastiest variety of blackmail; and if such an accusation is patently the truth, and your own duty in the matter very far from plain, then your discomfort is liable to become extreme. What happened, in the event, was that both Bowen and his subordinates were stricken by a sort of mutual paralysis. The Chief Constable’s blustering denials carried not an instant’s conviction, as he himself plainly saw. But on the other hand, his men would scarcely have felt competent to take action against him even if the blackmail charge had rested on something more substantial than Mrs. Foley’s unsupported word. Bowen had left, in the end, to go and see his solicitor, and to make—as he said—a telephone call to the Home Office; but that particular telephone call never went through. He had cooled down, and towards Best had become almost ingratiating, by the time he took himself off. But of his guilt there could be no shadow of doubt.
“All I could think of to do,” said Best to Fen that same evening, in his office, “was to ring up the Home Office myself. And they’re sending a deputation of bigwigs down here tomorrow to look into it all, so my responsibility’s finished, thank God… But, Lord, sir, you were taking a bit of risk, weren’t you? If Mrs. Foley had been too frightened to back you up, you’d have been in
trouble, and no mistake.”
Fen nodded. ‘I think it’s probably one of the chanciest things I’ve ever done,” he said. “But it wasn’t so much the question of whether Mrs. Foley would back me up that was worrying me. She’s obviously a morally decent sort of woman; I didn’t think it was likely to be
Bowen was blackmailing her for; and so I was fairly sure that if she were given a chance of making a clean breast of the thing, she’d probably do it.
“No, the real danger was that Bowen simply hadn’t
the evidence which proved Mrs. Foley guilty; or alternatively, that if he
noticed it, he was keeping quiet about it out of humanitarian feeling or local patriotism or something (there was the chance, too, that he’d been having an affair with Mrs. Foley, and was protecting her for that reason). To the first of these possibilities the objections were (
) that Bowen had been in the Thames police, (
) that he’d been in the Navy, and (
) that he’d recently read the standard text-books on Criminal Investigation. To the second, the objection was that—to use your words—Bowen was ’strict and rigid and pound-of-flesh and letter-of-the-law,’ and therefore unlikely to let a criminal escape the consequences of his acts for sentimental reasons. Most dangerous of all, for me, was the possibility that he’d been having an affair with Mrs. Foley prior to Foley’s death: in that case,
would in a sense have been blackmailing
“No, I won’t pretend there was anything waterproof about my ideas, in this instance; the balance of probability was in favour of them, and that was all. Even as it is, I take it that the evidence against him—”
“Won’t be strong enough for prosecution,” Best put in. “No, you’re right about that, I’m afraid: after all, it’s basically only her word against his. On the other hand, these deductions you made might help a bit.”
“Not waterproof enough, as I said. He can always plead that he simply
the particular bit of evidence that proved Mrs. Foley guilty—and you can’t condemn a man for that. After all, Best, you overlooked it yourself.”
“Damn me if I know what it is
said Best a shade grimly. “Come on, sir, don’t be a tease: let’s have it.”
For answer, Fen ran his eye over the books ranged on Best’s mantelpiece. Rising, he crossed the room and took one down.
“Listen to Gross,” he commanded, searching through the pages. “Here it is: Hans Gross,
Third Edition, page 435, footnote.
‘To say that footgear is the only thing a corpse does not lose easily through the action of water is inadequate;—the author has never been able to believe it is ever lost. Bodies often make horrible journeys, especially in swiftly flowing mountain streams, over boulders and trunks of trees, and thereby occasionally lose whole limbs. But if the feet are kept intact, and if the corpse has on boots or shoes, not mere sandals, these are never lost; the foot swells, the leather shrinks, and so the footgear “fits uncommonly tight.”’”
Fen replaced the volume on the shelf. “All of which rather makes hay of Mrs. Foley’s story,” he observed. “According to her, Foley was pushed into the river while in the act of kicking her with hobnailed boots; yet his body was eventually recovered without—to quote you again—’a stitch of clothing on it anywhere.’ So either Mrs. Foley was lying or Gross is—and I know which of them
put my money on. What I think must have happened is that Foley assaulted his wife and then went into the cottage and took off his boots; whereupon Mrs. Foley seized a poker, or some such thing, and very justifiably knocked him unconscious with it, subsequently dragging him to the river-bank in his stockinged feet (possibly with the help of the faithful idiot, and possibly under the impression that he was already dead), and there shoving him in and leaving him to drown. However, she’ll give us the details herself in due course, no doubt.”
Best was sobered. ‘Yes, I certainly ought to have remembered my Gross,” he said. “And I see now what you mean about the Thames police and the Navy and the text-books, in connection with Bowen: the boots business’d be the sort of detail he really would
, with that background.”
“I was banking on that, yes,” said Fen. “And when I saw the panic in his eyes—
—at my mention of the boots, I knew my guess about the blackmail was right: knew that he’d realised her guilt as soon as the body was recovered, and was putting a price on his silence and protection. It was just chance, of course, that he happened to be personally in charge of the case. But once he
in charge of it, his position was pretty well impregnable: since even if any of his subordinates had wondered about the boots, they’d have assumed there was some perfectly good explanation which he knew of and they didn’t—and in any case, they’d have thought more than twice about voicing suspicions against
Fen sighed. “Hence my interference. And now what are we left with?”
“Bowen will have to resign,” Best told him. “That’s the least that can happen. And there’ll be a charge of manslaughter—murder, perhaps—against
“She’ll get off lightly, though.” Fen spoke with confidence which the event was to justify. “And when she comes out, I’ll make a point of doing anything for her that I can… I say, Best, do you think she’d have preferred the other thing—Bowen, I mean?”
“You heard the way she accused him, sir,” Best pointed out. “If you ask me, she wasn’t looking forward to their friendship one little bit… No, sir, you can make your mind easy as regards
matter, I’m sure. I wouldn’t be knowing if a certain fate’s really worse, as they say, than actual
. But if I was a woman—well, sir, as between Bowen and a couple of years in Holloway, I know which I’d choose.”