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Our Library => J. S. Fletcher - Murder in Four Degrees (1931) => Topic started by: Admin on August 22, 2023, 01:16:24 pm



Title: 3 - 3
Post by: Admin on August 22, 2023, 01:16:24 pm
3 - 3

CHANEY was always so scrupulously careful in his arrangement of procedure that I felt a sly and almost malicious pleasure in giving him a gentle reminder that he was overlooking what I considered to be somewhat important matter.

‘No doubt,’ I replied to his last suggestion. ‘But you’re forgetting something that’s on the present spot.’

‘Forgetting?---what?’ he demanded.

‘Hannington used to be on the Milthwaite Observer,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t he editor or sub-editor? Here we are in Milthwaite---aren’t we going to ask a few questions at the Observer office?’

‘By Jove, you’re right!’ he exclaimed. ‘Of course! Hannington was first a reporter and then a sub-editor here. Now where is the Observer office?’

The Observer office turned out to be in a court at the rear of the Angel Hotel, and going there and sending in our professional cards we were presently escorted into the presence of the editor who listened to our story with that weary, pre-occupied air which for some strange reason or other, never to be explained, is characteristic of his kind.

‘I was not here in Hannington’s time,’ he said when Chaney had told him as much as it was proper for him to know. ‘He’d been gone two or three years before I came. I heard of him, of course. There’s been a complete change of staff since his day. However, we have a man here who was here when Hannington was, and I’ll introduce him to you.’ He rang a bell and a boy appeared. ‘See if Mr. Macpherson is in the reporters’ room,’ he said. ‘If he is, ask him to come here.’

Mr. Macpherson appeared quickly. He was, as his name suggested, a Scotsman. He had a grizzled moustache and beard, a red nose, and a watery blue eye, and he regarded Chaney and myself with a sort of suspicious enquiry.

‘Mr. Macpherson,’ said the editor, ‘these gentlemen, Mr. Chaney and Mr. Camberwell, are making some enquiries about the late Mr. Hannington, who, you know, was----’

‘Mur-r-r-der-r-r-ed in London the other day!’ muttered Mr. Macpherson. ‘Aye, aye, I knew Tom Hannington well, ‘deed I did!’

‘Perhaps you could have a talk with them, Mr. Macpherson?’ concluded the editor. ‘You knew Mr. Hannington when he was here.’

Mr. Macpherson lost no time. Without a word he motioned us out of the editorial presence and carefully closed the door. Then he turned on us with an earnest look. ‘D’ye ken the Angel?’ he asked.

‘We do!’ replied Chaney.

Mr. Macpherson pointed down the stair at the head of which we stood.

‘Go there and into the little snug at the left-hand side as ye go in,’ he commanded. ‘I’ll be with you in ten minutes---and maybe less.’

We obeyed Mr. Macpherson’s instructions. The snug he spoke of was a small parlour; untenanted; there was a bright fire and every opportunity for comfort. A waiter appeared: we bade him await Mr. Macpherson’s coming. And in less than ten minutes Mr. Macpherson came---the waiter appeared to know him intimately.

‘Mine’s as usual, Alfred,’ said Mr. Macpherson. ‘Take these gentlemen’s pleasures.’

Mr. Macpherson’s usual was a liberal dose of the wine of his country, with a very little admixture of water: he seemed more at home when he had sampled it once or twice.

‘And yer wantin’ to know about poor Tom Hannington?’ he said, confidentially. ‘Aye, many’s the glass Tom and myself have taken in this very room! I mind----’

‘I thought Mr. Hannington was a rabid teetotaller,’ interrupted Chaney.

Mr. Macpherson made a face expressive of disgust.

‘Aye, man, so he was in his later, degenerate day!’ he said. ‘But he was no’ a teetotaller when he was here on the Obsairver! He used to come here to the Angel a good deal---with me and the other boys. He was a good fellow, then. He fell from grace, poor Tom, when he got in with that damned old tea-merchant in London!’

‘Lord Cheverdale?’ said Chaney.

‘Who else?---a damned old Puritan!’ retorted Mr. Macpherson. ‘Wae’s me!---the change there was in Tom! I called to see him last time I was ever in that Babylon, and where once he’d ha’ gone out with me to a Fleet Street hostelry, he would have me to a bun-and-cocoa shop! Faugh!---Alfred, recharge the glasses!’

It was plain that Mr. Macpherson was an irrepressible, and we let him babble on. But we quickly ascertained a certain pertinent fact. Thomas Hannington, as a member of the editorial staff of the Milthwaite Observer, some twelve or fourteen years previously, had been in the habit of visiting the Angel Hotel for refreshment, liquid and otherwise, and consequently had opportunities of knowing Alice Holroyd. The mention of her name aroused other memories in Mr. Macpherson.

‘Aye, I remember the lass well enough!’ he said. ‘A fine, soncy young woman she was---married some fellow that caught her fancy and went off with him. We gave her a wedding present from the Observer—those of us that used this house. More by token, Hannington got it up---a tea and coffee service, best silver. Oh, yes, I mind Alice very well---Hannington was a bit sweet on her himself. But he was a dour and gloomy chiel, Tom, at times, though a good fellow at others, and when the damned old tea-merchant got hold of him---faugh! An’ we’ll just tak’ the other glass to his memory! Alfred!’

We left Mr. Macpherson a little later, Alfred still in attendance on him, and going back to our hotel, proceeded to make ready for departure by the afternoon train. And we were no sooner in than that Chaney returned to his suggestion about the Riviera.

‘We’ll have to go down there, Camberwell,’ he said. ‘Our line now is to trace Mrs. Crowther---and Mr. Crowther. Mentone is the last place we’ve heard of in connection with them and to Mentone we must go. Probably she came from Mentone to London: if so, there’ll be people at Mentone who know her and all about her.’

‘If so, why haven’t they come forward, then?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I don’t know. Our domestic news doesn’t get into the Continental papers,’ he answered. ‘At any rate, not into the smaller, provincial ones. No---we must go there. And why not?---pleasant trip, at Lord Cheverdale’s expense.’

‘That’s one way of looking at it, certainly,’ I remarked, laughing.

‘Very practical way,’ he retorted. ‘It’s his wish. Got a passport?’

‘I have!’

‘So’ve I. We’re all right, then. I suggest we go on to-morrow. I’ve been that way two or three times. I know Mentone. There’s a pretty fairly numerous English colony there. We’ll go by the 3.50 train from Victoria---Folkestone, Boulogne, Paris. Be there in about twenty-six hours. And then----’

‘Yes, then?’ I said. ‘What then?’

‘There must be some trace of her at Mentone,’ he answered. ‘She was there, anyway, we know that for a fact. And if you’ve once established a fact like that, you can work onward from it. What we want is to trace her from the time she was at Mentone---wherever she’s been since.’

We left London next day, as Chaney had suggested: by the evening of the following day we were in Mentone. And next morning, under a blue sky that contrasted sharply with the grey clouds we had left in England we set out on our first excursion of discovery.

‘Promenade St. Louis?’ said Chaney, as we left our hotel. ‘That’s on the other side of the harbour---the Garavan side.’

We went along through the streets at the foot of the old town to the Promenade St. Louis, which runs by the north side of the harbour on the road leading to the Italian frontier. To me, who had never been in Mentone before, the whole scene was full of interest; Chaney was in his element in pointing things out as we went along---the hills rising above the hotels and villas in the background; the glimpses of the Italian coast to the east, and of Cap Martin to the west: the old church of St. Michel towering above the narrow streets and alleys behind us; the Rochers Rouges immediately in front, just behind the narrow stream which separates France from Italy; the hundred and one bits of life and colour strange to English eyes. Yet, observant as Chaney was, it was I who suddenly spotted what we had come so far to seek. Within a score of yards of the tramway terminus at the end of the Promenade, I seized his arm, pointing down the road.

‘Chaney!’ I exclaimed. ‘Look there!’

What I had seen was this. Across the road, on the land side, facing the bay and harbour was what had once, evidently, been a café, and was now, as far as one could see, an odds-and-ends shop. It had once been gaily and artistically painted, as to its exterior; tubs, in which trees and shrubs had stood, still stood, forlorn and desolate, on the pavement in front of it; a battered sun-awning in once bright colours, still half-projected above the windows. And on the facade, in bold lettering I had detected the words, faded though the gilt was:

CHEZ CROWTHER

and beneath them, in smaller letters:

English Tea Rooms.

Chaney drew a long breath.

‘Struck it in one!’ he muttered. ‘But---it seems to be closed. Come across! A tea-shop, eh? Well, well----’

We went across the road and looked in at the dirty windows. The some-time café appeared to be now used as a repository for old furniture. It was deplorably dirty and its contents were decrepit when they weren’t disreputable. And there was no one about, and the door was fast. But there were the words above us, in their tarnished gilt.

There was another little café, a going concern, next door, and its proprietress, a good-natured looking woman, came to its front, amongst her tables and chairs and looked enquiringly at us. Chaney was just then trying the door of the derelict establishment: she shook her head at him. Now Chaney, amongst his other many accomplishments, spoke very passable French and pretty glibly. While I continued to peer into the deserted café he went over to her with a question to which she made a voluble reply. After listening he came back to me.

‘She says that this place hasn’t been a café for some years,’ he said. ‘The people to whom it belonged left it, and it became what we see it. Camberwell!---I bet this woman knows something---let’s sit down, have some coffee, and talk to her.’

Madame got us the coffee and was only too willing to talk---Chaney always knew how to draw people out, especially women. Yes, it was some years since that next door had been closed---that is, as a café, messieurs would understand. They were English people that had it; they had an idea that the English would patronize them, and perhaps the Americans, and they offered English cakes and the like. But, said madame with a shrug of her shoulders, the English appeared to prefer the confectionery of Mentone. And, in fine, the place did not pay.

‘You knew the people, madame?’ suggested Chaney.

Madame knew them well---were they not next-door-neighbours? Mrs. Crowther---madame had some difficulty in pronouncing the name, and Mr. Crowther. Three years they were there, and then---oh, well, there was the end. They retired from the battle, as one would say. The Chez Crowther closed its doors.

‘And where did Mr. and Mrs. Crowther go, madame?’ enquired Chaney. ‘To England, perhaps?’

But no, said madame. Not at all, but quite close by---to Monte Carlo. She knew that well, for Mrs. Crowther left certain things in her charge, and afterwards sent for them from Monte Carlo. Did messieurs wish for the address in Monte Carlo?---she had it somewhere---an old letter or two . . . she disappeared into a room at the back of her café.

‘We’re in luck, Camberwell,’ said Chaney. ‘Link by link, we’re making a chain. Monte Carlo, eh? But---all these years ago!’

Madame came back, with a crumpled sheet of flimsy note-paper. In silence she handed it to Chaney—we both looked it over. It was merely a note asking madame to send on to Monte Carlo a certain box which had been left in her care. But it was signed Alice Crowther, and it bore an address Pension Hagill, Rue Antoinette, La Condamine.

I pointed out the date---nine years before.

‘Yes,’ said Chaney. ‘Still. . . .’

We thanked madame for her courtesy, and went away.

‘Camberwell,’ observed Chaney as we strolled back to our hotel, ‘as I said just now, we’re making a chain, link by link. We’ve established the fact that Crowther and his wife came here, to Mentone, after their marriage, and set up an English tea-shop. It didn’t pay, and they left and went to Monte Carlo. Very well!---now we go to Monte Carlo. But at Monte Carlo we want to know something about Crowther! So far, we know next to nothing. Where is Crowther, nowadays? Is he alive? Certainly, the war’s intervened in everybody’s fortunes---perhaps Crowther went under. But if Crowther’s alive, then, as that old limb of the law said at Milthwaite, very likely Crowther is behind these murders. Anyhow, when we get to Monte Carlo, we want to have some news of him!---not so much of her. Let’s think, now---according to what Perkins told us, Mrs. Crowther got that legacy while they were at Mentone. Perhaps they’d some of her original £2,000 left: perhaps they put what was left to the £1,500 legacy and went to Monte Carlo to try their luck at the tables, eh?’

‘Surmise, Chaney, pure surmise?’ I said, smiling.

‘Very likely---but I think it possible,’ he retorted. ‘Anyhow, we must get more information about the man. We know what’s happened to the woman.’

We went along to Monte Carlo that afternoon, and after putting ourselves up at a quiet hotel in the Pereira district, walked down to La Condamine to find the Pension Hagill. And there again we were in luck; the Pension Hagill was run by two Englishwomen, the Misses Wakeman, sisters, elderly, one of whom we presently interviewed. She was a sharp-witted, business-like woman, who was quick to understand our explanations, and who smiled shrewdly when we mentioned the Crowthers.

‘Ah!’ she exclaimed. ‘I always felt that there would be enquiries sooner or later! You want to know---what?’

‘All that we can learn, ma’am, about them during their stay here,’ replied Chaney.

Miss Wakeman considered matters.

‘Come in this evening, after dinner,’ she said. ‘Come about nine o’clock. My sister and I will be free, then. Then we can tell you all we know. It’s---it’s a good deal.’

We went back to the Pension Hagill at the appointed time; the sisters Wakeman received us in their private parlour. The one we had not previously seen proved to be, if anything, even more shrewd and business-like than her sister, and in the conversation that followed it was she who did most of the talking---after she had first made herself sufficiently acquainted with our credentials and our object.

‘We get the English papers here, of course,’ she said. ‘And we read about the murders at Cheverdale Lodge and in Little Custom Street, but we never connected Mrs. Clayton with poor Mrs. Crowther. Do you really believe they’re identical?’

‘I don’t think there’s the least doubt about it, ma’am,’ replied Chaney. ‘There’s no doubt at all in my mind!’

‘We knew Mrs. Crowther very well indeed for a year or two---nine years ago,’ said Miss Wakeman. ‘And we used to hear of her---from her, I mean---for a year or two after she left here. Then we heard no more, and we’ve often wondered what had become of her, poor thing.’

‘You appear to commiserate her,’ said Chaney. ‘Why?’

‘You’ll know why when you’ve heard what I’m going to tell you,’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘You want, now, to know what we know about Mr. and Mrs. Crowther? Very well---what we know is this. They came here, to this Pension, from Mentone. Mrs. Crowther told me and my sister---when we’d got to know them better---that they had had an English tea-shop there, thinking that it would attract English and American visitors; they had found, however, that it had no such particular attraction, and they had cleared out of it before suffering further loss. They certainly had money when they came here---but in our opinion it steadily went.’

‘How, ma’am?’ enquired Chaney.

Miss Wakeman smiled cynically.

‘I should say it went at the establishment on top of the hill,’ she said, pointing a forefinger towards the window. ‘Crowther was always there! He had invented a system. Well, my sister and I, having lived here some twenty-five years, have heard of a great many systems, but we have not yet heard of an infallible one! Our impression is that Crowther steadily lost money at the Casino. He did no work---what was there for him to do, here?---and he went to the Casino as soon as it was open and remained there as long as it was kept open. I knew his wife used to get more and more anxious: she confided to me, at last, that she knew he was losing money. What was more, she said it was her money---a recent legacy.’

‘Just so!’ muttered Chaney. ‘She’d had one---£1,500---just before leaving Mentone.’

‘Well,’ continued Miss Wakeman, ‘I said to her---why didn’t she keep a tight hold on it? She answered that Crowther had command over it---he was the sort of man who insisted that what was his wife’s was his, and from the time of their marriage, when, she said, she’d handed over her little fortune of £2,000 to him, he’d always done what he liked with her money. And now, she said, he’d got the gambling fever strong on him, and she didn’t know what would come of it. However, the thing came suddenly to an end---a very sudden end.’

‘How?’ asked Chaney.

‘Crowther disappeared!’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘He went out of this house one morning, as usual, and never returned. We never heard of him again, and, as long as we knew her, or heard from her, Mrs. Crowther never did, either. Within twenty-four hours of his disappearance she ascertained that he’d drawn all the money out of the bank here---the Credit Lyonnais---but had said nothing there of where he was going. Anyhow, he’d gone---“clean gone”.’

‘Leaving her without money?’ asked Chaney.

‘She’d about twenty or thirty pounds in her possession,’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘Enough to keep her going for a while. They didn’t owe us anything at the time of Crowther’s disappearance. However much of a gambler he may have been, he was most scrupulous and punctilious about paying his bills. He didn’t owe a penny in the place. But---he went off with all her money!’

‘Have you any idea of the amount?’ enquired Chaney.

‘Yes! Mrs. Crowther told us that he’d drawn at least £1,100 out of the bank. Her money, of course,’ said Miss Wakeman. ‘Indeed, she told my sister and myself that Crowther had no money when she married him, and had never earned any since. And yet---he always struck me as a singularly smart, able, clever man. He was, of course, an adventurer.’

‘Was any attempt made to find him?’ asked Chaney.

‘Not to our knowledge,’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘I believe Mrs. Crowther made some enquiries at the stations at Monte Carlo and at Mentone, but failed to get any news of him. Of course there were lots of ways in which he could have left the town: that was easy enough. However,’ she added, laughing, ‘he left in what he stood up in!---he didn’t carry even a small suit-case away with him. He just---went.’

‘Leaving a very good wardrobe behind him,’ remarked the other Miss Wakeman. ‘He was always a very well-dressed man.’

‘I suppose he never sent for anything?’ asked Chaney.

‘Not he! As I say, we never heard a word more of him,’ said Miss Wakeman. ‘He completely vanished.’

‘And Mrs. Crowther? What did she do?’ enquired Chaney.

‘Mrs. Crowther was a sensible woman,’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘I think she realized at once that he’d gone for good. She was also a practical woman---she began by selling all Crowther’s belongings, and realized quite a nice little sum. Then---staying with us in the meantime---she began to look for employment, and it was not long before she got some. She got a post as linen storekeeper at one of the big hotels---the Hotel de l’Empereur---and at a very good salary, and there she went. She stayed there about four years; she used to come to see my sister and me pretty regularly; we liked Mrs. Crowther. But she never had any news of her husband to give us. I think she felt pretty certain, all along, that she’d never hear of him again.’

‘And at the end of the four years, ma’am?’ asked Chaney. ‘What then?’

‘The war had broken out by that time,’ replied Miss Wakeman. ‘Things began to get very difficult for hotel and pension keepers. Staffs were reduced---hotels were commandeered as hospitals. And Mrs. Crowther left the Hotel de l’Empereur and went to Paris---to a similar situation---at the Hotel Mauriac.’

‘That would be---exactly when?’ enquired Chaney.

Miss Wakeman thought a little.

‘About the beginning of 1915,’ she replied. ‘The war had been in progress some six or seven months.’

‘Did she ever write to you from Paris?’

‘Now and then, up to about 1917. Since then, we’ve heard nothing.’

Chaney wrote down the Paris address in his book; we rose to go. The two ladies looked from one to the other of us with enquiring eyes.

‘And you really, really think that the Mrs. Clayton of Little Custom Street is identical with the Mrs. Crowther we knew?’ asked the elder, once more. ‘You really think it?’

‘I do, ma’am!’ replied Chaney. ‘Ugly thing to think of, but----’

‘Then do you know what I think?’ she interrupted, speaking with sudden vehemence. ‘I think she came across Crowther! Find him, gentlemen, find him! Look for him . . . in London!’