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Authors: Roy Vickers

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“Did he seal up the letters with the Will?” asked Crisp.

She took time over her answer. He was uncertain whether she were trying to remember, or thinking of something safe to say.

“I didn't notice. I was watching Ralph. He's a bit of an invalid.”

“What sort of invalid?”

“Oh—just nerves, as I told you. Having all that money thrown at him when he was an undergraduate unbalanced him a bit. Before we left the library, he did break out again—I forget quite why—said I had been insulted and that we would both leave the house and never enter it again—and he would be heroic and keep me on his earnings, when everybody knows he couldn't earn anything, poor dear!

“I said I didn't feel insulted—which I didn't. If I had felt insulted, I wouldn't have stayed on for the week-end. In the library, I said perhaps a bit more than I meant to Ralph—that I couldn't marry him if he were to quarrel with his uncle, because I didn't think I could hold down the job of harrassed housewife. Then I went into the garden and Ralph followed me—rather huffily at first. I told him it was all very dramatic and silly, and that, by dinner time, Watlington would have forgotten what he had said. Ralph agreed, and we talked of other things. But he kept harking back to the insult nonsense. So I said I'd go and talk to his uncle myself, and I left Ralph in the garden. This was about five o'clock. The stable clock struck as I reached the house.

“I went in by the front door. On that table in the hall I saw a couple of parcels, one registered. The other had the printed label of a lithographer. I picked it up, as a good excuse for butting in on Watlington. In part of the peerage talk, he had told us he was waiting for—that thing on the table there, to stamp the family crest on things when you couldn't use sealing wax.

“I fancy he was only pretending to be asleep. I sat down quietly at the writing table opposite him. I took that knife from my bag and cut the string. With the crackle of the paper he had to admit he was awake. He made a pleased noise and grabbed the stamp, like a child grabbing a toy. I gave him a piece of paper and we both played with it. He asked me whether there was another parcel in the hall. I didn't want another diversion, so I said I hadn't noticed one. As soon as I could, I said: ‘Ralph is being rather hysterical because he thinks you don't want us to get married.' And he said ‘Hysterical! You've said it. The boy's soft. You'll have to toughen him up, my dear, if you want to make anything of him.'

“When I pointed out that I couldn't do anything, if it were to be made impossible for us to marry, he said. ‘Forget all that. I said most of it because Ralph was getting my goat. He explained that when he was told Ralph had become engaged to me he had made inquiries. He heard that I had been ‘entangled,' as he called it, with another man, but he was now satisfied that he need not have bothered himself. After that, he became complimentary—quite definitely so—the burden of it being that he was very glad I wanted to marry Ralph.”

“He didn't give you back those letters you had written? Did you ask him for them?”

“No. He had forgiven himself and me and everybody, and was making courtly little speeches. It would have spoilt the atmosphere to remind him of what a horrible cad he had been over the letters.”

Crisp could not gauge whether it was true or untrue. She had a compelling honesty of manner—which might be only manner.

“Will you tell me the name of the man to whom those letters were written?”

“Of course I won't!”

Of course she wouldn't, reflected Crisp. That sort of thing was protected by the code—no earthly good pressing her. He smiled and asked:

“After you had left Watlington?”

“I went upstairs to my room, had a bath, and stayed in my room until it was time to dress for dinner. That's all!”

Crisp made a swift analysis. The girl's story contained a feasible explanation of every fact which an intelligent person might assume to be already in the possession of the police.

“What time did you leave the library?”

“On my way to the bathroom—after picking up my things in the bedroom—I heard a quarter past five strike. That would be about three minutes after I left the library.”

“That's a precise answer—you'd make a very good witness.” She looked as pleased as a schoolgirl when the music master has expressed approval. Crisp asked:

“Was Watlington's objection to you—possibly—a bit stronger than you've implied?”

“Possibly!” She laughed. “You mean that—as I didn't know he was going to change his mind about me—I ought to have murdered him myself, recovered the letters and married Ralph on the million and trimmings?”

“That was in my mind,” grinned Crisp.

“Then for heaven's sake don't let it wander out of your mind when you're grilling Ralph. I mean it, though I've put it stupidly. I mean that, if you drop the slightest hint that you suspect me of murder, he'll promptly confess and demand to be hanged.” Her eyes searched his face—her tone changed and her self-possession vanished. “Please be gentle with him, Colonel.”

She assumed that he had no more questions for her, and got up. He went to the door and let her out—then, on an afterthought, turned, as if to bar her way.

“I don't suspect Cornboise of murdering his uncle,” he said, watching her eyes. “But you do!”

“I do not!” Her voice held both surprise and reproof. “But he's so nervy. As soon as he gets frightened of you, he'll bluster and say silly things and contradict himself.”

“Why should you think he'll ‘get frightened' of me?” Crisp was puzzled, “I haven't bullied you, have I?”

“No—but I've told you ten times as much as I meant to.” She added: “You're the only formidable man I've ever met.”

That last bit was inverted flattery, he told himself when she had gone. Most civilian men liked to be thought formidable—she had taken a bet that the same applied to himself.

But he had to admit that she had not tried any tricks while she was giving evidence. He found himself approving her. She had given straight answers, told her tale without trying to lead him in this direction or that. The tale was consistent with the known facts, corroborated in detail by Mrs. Cornboise and by Bessie, the maid.

At the back of his head was the suspicion that there was a catch in it somewhere.

“That Will is the catch!” he exclaimed.

As before, he ran his fingers over the envelope, wondering at its slimness. One would expect a millionaire's Will to be a complicated, bulky affair. He was certain now, that there was only a single folded sheet inside the long envelope.

“If Cornboise gives me the same tale I'll open it in his presence.”

He was about to call Benscombe, when the latter came in.

“That artist, Arthur Fenchurch, sir. Do you want to see him before he goes? He gave an address about half a mile from here.”

“All right! I'll see him before I see Cornboise.”

Arthur Fenchurch registered elaborate indifference. Crisp recognised his type too—the poseur who explains that he is posing.

“I'd like to know your business here this evening, Mr. Fenchurch?”

“Businesss? None. That is, not directly. I consented to come in order to kow-tow to a wealthy client. I was to paint him, including—my God!—his wig.” He added: “I have to do portraiture to make a living. My portraits are very vulgar, and so I am becoming very popular.”

Crisp eyed the sports coat and flannel trousers—noticed that the leather-bound sketch-book was no longer in the side-pocket.

“D'you mean you were asked to dinner?”

“Yes. I never wear evening dress. When I turn up like this, people think I'm much better known that I am. That helps to stiffen my prices.”

Crisp consulted the list of dinner guests.
Mr. Fenchurch. Mrs. Fenchurch
, followed by a local address and telephone number.

“The other guests had all left by about eight at my request. It's now ten.”

“I apologise. I lingered partly out of morbid curiosity, partly in the hope of publicity, and partly because I know Ralph Cornboise and Miss Lofting very well.”

“But Mrs. Fenchurch went home alone? I take it the lady is your wife?”

“Yes—but not legally, of course! Everybody knows we're not married.”

“And she was asked to dinner as your mistress?” Crisp was sceptical.

“In effect, yes. People who can afford to have their portraits painted always expect an artist to have a mistress. As a matter of fact, my relations with the fair Glenda are what you would probably call blameless. She believes she's my secretary—she's actually my domestic help. She likes people to think she's living in sin, so the arrangement pleases everybody. Only, for some reason, she funked turning up tonight.”

Crisp was framing a question, when the explanation came of its own accord.

“She cried off yesterday on the ground that Watlington was a nasty old man who had—er—I think you call it?—made advances to her. It may or may not have been true. She is very pretty and very vain. I adore her vanity but detest her prettiness.”

Putting himself over, thought Crisp. He let a silence hang, knowing that this type could rarely endure inattention. His eye lighted on the dun coloured cotton glove on the other's left hand.

“In hot weather, I am afflicted with a slight eczema—due to excessive drinking,” he explained, and added: “By the way, am I suspected of guilty knowledge of the murder and—that kind of thing?”

“Theoretically, you are—until we have checked you out. Where were you between lunch and dinner?”

“Heavens, have I to produce an alibi? I must take fantastic care not to contradict myself.” He possessed himself of one of the pencils exhibited on the table and made notes on the back of a typewritten letter. “I remember trying to go to sleep after lunch, but it was too hot. I went out alone and wandered by the river. I lay down under that oak near the lock until I began to bore myself. Then I came on here, apparently arriving at the right time.”

“Perhaps someone saw you during that time who could identify you?” suggested Crisp.

“Undoubtedly! People tend to point me out to each other. But I myself don't know a soul in these parts. We might advertise in the local paper, asking all those who stared at me to come forward. Otherwise, I warn you, I can't prove a word of my story.”

“In your case, I don't think we need worry you about proof.” Crisp surprised an unguarded look of relief on the other's face. “If you find you can remember anything for us to check, you might ring me at headquarters, will you? Goodnight!”

“I wonder,” said Fenchurch as he rose to go, “why people think the police subject them to third degree or whatever it is. I've enjoyed our chat immensely.”

“So have I. Would you mind returning that pencil which you have pocketted?”

“Oh, sorry! I'm so glad you told me! People generally hate to mention it. My studio is littered with other people's pencils and fountain pens—mostly belonging to autograph hunters.”

When Fenchurch had left the room, Crisp summoned Benscombe, gave him the list of guests.

“Before Fenchurch can reach home, ask Mrs. Fenchurch—that's what she's called—what time he left their flat this afternoon, and where he was going. She may not know that Watlington is dead. She may not know that you are in the Force. Her name is Glenda, in case she mistakes you for a cocktail party boy friend.”

Benscombe made for the telephone. Crisp called an orderly.

“Tell Mr. Cornboise I'd be obliged if he would come to the morning-room.”

Before Cornboise appeared, Crisp put the envelope containing the Will on the mantelpiece, seal downwards.

Chapter Five

Ralph Cornboise seemed to Crisp to be no more nervy than any young man might be in the circumstances. He made a graceful response to condolences on the death of his uncle. As the hard light from the Victorian chandelier fell full on his face, Crisp spotted signs of a sedative drug, and suspected the hand of Claudia.

A playboy, Crisp decided, but of the kind that takes itself seriously—floating through life with highfalutin' intentions but never actually breaking free from a routine of trivial amusements, which might include the amusement of playing at work. Strange that a woman like Claudia Lofting could be attracted to such a man—and to the extent of asking other men to be gentle with him.

Rather impertinent of her, now he came to think of it.

“As you probably know,” said Crisp, putting it as gently as Claudia could wish, “we have to tick off everybody's movements.”

“Where d'you want me to begin, Colonel?”

“Begin at the point where you last saw your uncle alive, and work backwards.”

Ralph Cornboise nodded, while he weighed his words.

“I last saw him alive at a quarter past five this afternoon. In the library.”

Crisp was surprised. That was the time given by the old lady in the garden. Ralph Cornboise had made a good beginning.

“Give the full circumstances, please—how and why you went to the library, and so on.”

“That will be difficult without dragging in family matters.” He spoke as if Crisp's convenience were his sole concern. “After lunch, Miss Lofting, Querk and myself went with my uncle into the library, where we were occupied with family affairs for half an hour or so, after which Miss Lofting and I drifted into the garden.

“As a matter of fact, Miss Lofting and I were discussing a rather offensive remark of my uncle's which, in my opinion, implied that she was not a suitable woman for me to marry. You never met him? He used to make a point of being rougher than he really was—and that was a lot! Miss Lofting thought I was exaggerating the importance of the remark. After a couple of hours, she said she would go at once to my uncle and get him to define his attitude. I told her I hoped she would not do so, as it could only make matters worse. I asked her instead to come with me to a swimming pool—the Three Witches, a roadhouse ten minutes' drive from here. She said she did not want to. My last words as she left me were: ‘Please don't go to the library'.”

BOOK: Murder of a Snob
13.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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