Authors: Roy Vickers
“So you still have the income?” put in Crisp.
“That's what I'm coming to, if you give me time,” she answered. “I couldn't stand having no one to talk to, so I went back to cooking, for company. I saved most of what the insurance company paid meâand all the money Sam sent as extra presents, hoping for divorce. I reckoned I'd have a nice tidy sum ready for him ifâ” she glanced meaningly at Crisp's uniformâ“if anything went wrong through all that money making. When I read in the paper that he'd set himself up as a lord, I knew something 'ud happen. You can laugh at me, but I had a feeling in my bones this morning that it was going to happen today.”
“I shan't laugh,” Crisp assured her. “I've known many cases of that sort of thing.”
“Well, so I had a bite o' lunch at home then came along here with my knitting and a few sandwiches, meaning to wait about quietly, in case he should go for a stroll in the garden. You couldn't call that molesting him. And even if I was wrong about something bad going to happen, I thought maybe he'd like us to spend our old age together and live simply and comfortably, as soon as he's tired of playing at being a lord. Why, he doesn't even know what the gentry eat!”
With the last words, she turned towards him. Crisp observed that the large eyes suggested not only vigour but also intelligence. Yet she had rambled on in the manner of a person who has no sense of proportion. She had not even asked him the usual irritating questions as to whether it were a case of murder and if so who was the murderer.
“I've told you all about Sam and me because I didn't want you ferreting about and getting it all wrong. He gave me much more money than he need have done. All the same, he spoilt my life as well as his own, and now he's gone it won't really make any difference. He didn't want me, whatever you say. For one thing, I ought to have told myself he'd get a shock at seeing me an old woman.”
Crisp made a leap in the dark.
it a shock to him when he saw you, Mrs. Cornboise?”
“I don't care for that kind of question!” She drew herself up primly, as if he had made an obscene remark. “If I'd seen him I'd have mentioned it. If you ask me in a straightforward way what you want to know, I'll give you a straightforward answer.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Cornboise.” Crisp contrived to look like a penitent schoolboy. “Here's a very straightforward question. What time did you get here this afternoon?”
“About ten past two. I could see the time from the stable clockâlet alone it keeps on striking. I found this nice seat where I can see two sides of the house and anybody coming up from this side of the garden, though I will say these awful shapes gave me the creeps at first.”
“You must have seen a good deal in that long time?”
“There was nothing to see until you came. Unless you mean the other people in the house. And I'm one to mind my own business.”
“Come, Mrs. Cornboise!” Crisp was changing tone. “I think you know as well as I do that this is your own business.”
“I'm sure I've got nothing to hide, except from the newspapers. Well then, a bit after it had struck half past two, I saw that window openâlook down this alleyâone of those big windows, I mean.” She indicated the library. “And a young lady came out. And that young man you say is my nephew by marriage came after her. It looked to me as if they were having a tiff and she was in the wrong, because she put her hand on his arm and he shook it off; then she put it there again and he let it stay and they walked across over there, only it wasn't any good. They must have had a good long quarrel. And she was unlucky, by the look of it.”
“Did you hear what they said, then?”
“No. But more'n a couple of hours later she came back without him. And she walked right past me without seeing me and went into the house.”
“What time did she go into the house?”
“Five, as near as makes no matter.”
According to the doctor, Watlington had died between five and five thirty.
“What about young Cornboise?” asked Crisp.
“He gave her a good start. It was a good ten past before he showed up. And then he didn't go in by the front door, as she did. He went in by the window he had come out of, pushed it up from the outside. I think she must've been in that roomâor else he had some trouble with Samuel. It hadn't finished striking the quarter past before he came out againâwiping his face with his handkerchief he was, as if he'd been crying. Then he walked across that bit o' lawn, but caught his foot, or something, and fell down. When he'd picked himself up he turned round and went to the stablesâbut it's the garage, reallyâthen he came out in one of those big cars that only seat twoâsilly, I call ' emâand drove himself off. All painted up, the car was, like it belonged to a circus.”
“But he came back?”
“I'm telling you. He came back a little after half past six. He'd left it late, I suppose, because he fairly ran from the stables to the front door.
“I didn't see either of those two again until just before you came. Then they came out together, him in his evening dress and her wearing a cloak. They hadn't hardly sat down before that Mr. Querkâif it
Mr. Querkâjoined them. You saw the three o' them when you came, before all those others turned up.”
“And you saw nothing else at all?”
“Well unless you count the maid, bringing out tables and chairs and things, about seven. Oh, and the postmanâabout a quarter to four, that would be. With a registered parcel I expect, because he waited while the maid signed for it.”
Crisp had made a rich haul of important little items, invaluable in checking the statements of others. And for this he was indebted to the vague, rambling old woman who had suddenly converted herself into an ideal witness.
“You've helped me a lot, Mrs. Cornboise, and I'm grateful.” He added in the same tone: “And you yourself have been sitting on this bench continuously for more than six hours?”
“Seven hours, come another few minutes. Didn't you hear it strike nine just now? There'll be the dew presently and I think I'll be getting home, if there's nothing else you want to ask me.”
“As a matter of form, Mrs. Cornboise,” said Crisp, “I must ask you to let me look inside that canvas bag of yours.”
“Well, I never!” Again she had the air of being shocked. “Like the police in the pictures.” She handed him the bag, adding gloomily: “In a picture I saw last week, a policeman put a revolver in somebody's bag so that another policeman could find it there and make a lot of bother.”
“You watch me and see that I don't cheat,” grinned Crisp as his hand groped in the bag.
He removed the topmost articlesâa novelette with a lingerie jacket, a sixpenny packet of stationery, and a pair of gloves.
After a few seconds of rummaging, he pulled out a woollen stocking. Inside the stocking, at the toe, was a hard, heavy substance. He tumbled it into his palm. It had the appearance of a duck's egg. It was solid and was made of earthenware.
“That's a nest-egg,” she explained. “I tried keeping chickens at one time, but they weren't really company. I use it now for stretching the stocking and holding it steady while I darn itâin case you're wondering.”
“I was wondering,” said Crisp, “why you carry this darning device in a stocking that has no hole, has never been darned and is, in fact, a new one.”
“There now!” exclaimed Mrs. Cornboise. “I must have brought the wrong pair. You have got sharp eyes, I must say!”
He opened the bag to its full extent, found two more stockings, making a total of three.
“I shall have to keep these for the present,” he told her. “I'll give you a receipt.”
When he had calmed her protests he passed her to young Benscombe, telling him quietly to send her home and have her address checked.
Inspector Sanson, a pompous little man who had gained promotion for his desk work, had already given the Victorian morning-room the semblance of an office at headquarters. On the breakfast table, from which the patterned cloth had been removed, were all the portable objects which had been examined for finger prints. Crisp dropped into the only easy chair.
“Give me the log of the witnesses first, Sanson, then your stuff.”
“The only witness of any account so far, sir, is Bessie Walters, temporary maid, who has been in the employment of the deceased, as have the other two, for three weeks. At nine this morning, when Bessie Walters brought deceased his breakfast in the room we are now occupying, deceased told her there would be three guests to luncheonâwhich he said the cook could serve out of tinsâand twenty all told to dinner, for which arrangements had been made with Harridge's. The three to luncheon were to stay till Monday morning.
“Mr. Querk arrived shortly before noon, when he
-paired to the library. He remained there closetted with deceased until about a quarter to one, when Mr. Cornboise, his nephew, and Miss Lofting, the nephew's intended, also arrived. The four I have mentioned consumed cocktails on the terrace until luncheon was served. After luncheon, all four
-paired to the library, where they remained closetted until a quarter to three, approximately, when Walters saw Mr. Querk going up to his room. She did not see the other two guests between luncheon and about seven, when they came downstairs together in evening dress and
-paired to the terrace. A few minutes later Mr. Querk added himself to their company.
“Walters last saw the deceased at luncheon. It was his habit to sleep after luncheon in the library, where he would remain closetted until dinner, and orders were that he was never to be disturbed until dinner was served. Having lived abroad, he did not take afternoon tea.
“There had been no orders for tea for the guests. But at four, Walters went in search of the guests. She found only Mr. Querk in the house. He was in his room, and she said she thought he also had been sleeping in his chair. She offered to bring him tea, which offer having been accepted, she came back with a tray and put it on the table by the window where he was sitting.
“At four fifteen approximately, Walters
-paired to her bedroom where she remained closetted until a quarter to six. At six, Messrs. Harridge's employees arrived with a mobile kitchen unit and all Walters had to do was to show them the dining-room. The cook and the under-housemaid not being required toâto exercise their respective functions, sirâhad leave of absence from four until ten. Walters remained in the staff sitting-room until seven, when, after putting some chairs on the terrace, she took up a position in the hall in readiness for the arrival of the guests. That completes the essentials of the log of the witnesses.”
“There's a detail missing,” said Crisp. “Benscombe, find out whether Bessie Walters was called to the front door between lunch and our arrival. Get details, but mind you don't lead her. Carry on, Sanson.”
“Finger prints, sir, ignoring those of deceased.” The Inspector turned to a separate sheaf of notes. “Miss Lofting: On exterior and interior hand plates of the door of the library. On the edge of the writing table: on some brown wrapping paper, sent through the post and post-marked London this morning ten-fifteen, found in the waste paper basketâExhibit Two: also on the woodwork of the east window of the library, internal.
“Mr. Cornboise: Interior handplate of door: writing table: woodwork of window, interior and exterior.
“Mr. Querk: On interior handplate of door: on writing table: on an address die-stamp found on the mantelpieceâExhibit One: On sealed envelope which you took from the safeâExhibit Four. The sealed envelope also bears prints of deceased. That's all of what you might call the major prints, sir. The rest is check-upâincluding the prints of Bessie Walters all over the place, as you might say.”
Exhibit Three was the little pearl-handled pen-knife, on which no prints had been found.
“Blurred, I suppose?” asked Crisp.
“No, sir. Wiped clean.”
Wiped clean, like the signet ring and the key of the safe, bearing out the doctor's guess that the knife had been used to ease the ring off the finger and replace it. Nothing else of note, except that Querk had apparently put the die-stamp on the mantelpiece.
Crisp got up and looked at the die-stamp. From a metal base, two by three inches, a lever of some eight inches operated a copper stamp, the whole weighing a little over two pounds.
Crisp inserted a piece of paper and pressed the lever.
“I guessed it wasn't an address stampâthe copper is too short. It's a stunt for embossing the family crest. Two-headed serpent.”
“Relevant to Exhibit Two,” said Sanson, “the postal wrapping paper previously referred to, sirâhere it isâbears the name of a firm of lithographers and die-cutters.”
“It probably came by this afternoon's post, sir,” cut in Benscombe, who had returned a minute or so previously. “Bessie says the postman came about a quarter to four with two parcels, one registered and marked personal.”
“This die-stamp wasn't registered,” said Crisp, after a glance at the wrapping. “Find out where the registered parcel is. Don't ask anybody but Walters.”
So far, the information received tallied with that given to Crisp by the old lady in the garden.
While Crisp was making his own note of the known whereabouts of the servants and guests between two and seven o'clock, a constable brought him a package.
“From Dr. Harris, sir.”
The package contained the silver plate from the skull of the deceased. Enclosed was a memo from the doctor:
âI have taken scrapings for analysis elsewhere. On outer side of plate was substance which, with my own small microscope, I could recognise as dust of plectytâa finely processed canvas used as the foundation for wigs.'