Neck and Neck
A few weeks later Vincent, my brother, and I gave a small dinner-party at Camber Lodge. It was half-term at Vincent’s public school, Penshurst, and, as he was able to get away for a few days, we decided to meet at Hastings and settle up finally the rest of Aunt Aurora’s estate.
Reluctantly we agreed that Camber Lodge must be sold. We let Mary Raikes, the cook, and Ellen choose some things they treasured from among my aunt’s possessions and then, after we had picked out what we both wanted, we arranged for the rest to be auctioned.
As soon as my aunt’s Will had been settled, I had bought a brand new Norton motor-cycle for Charlie Raikes. He was happily dividing his time between racing on his bike and planning his new life in Canada. Their passages, his mother’s and his, had been booked, and they were due to sail in a fortnight. Tom Raikes, the husband, had gone off again, with, I suspected, some portion of the money my aunt had left Mary his wife. Nothing more could be done for him.
Vincent and I were both a little worried about Ellen when we decided to close down Camber Lodge. Her whole life had been spent there with my aunt, and, though we agreed to give her a substantial cheque, we knew that money would be no real consolation. She had decided, however, where her duty lay. “I must go and look after those poor Misses Graves,” she told us. “They’re all right for money now, thanks to Miss Fielding. That’s one thing. But they’ve aged terribly since your aunt’s death. They were such friends, you know, all those years. I’m sure Miss Fielding would want me to do it. I shall find the difference in that house, I know. They won’t be considerate, like your aunt, to work for. One of them can hardly move by herself now, and the other’s a bit queer in her head ever since they had the bailiffs in. But I must do it. I shouldn’t be easy in my conscience if I didn’t carry on Miss Fielding’s good work, now she’s not here to do it herself.”
Christian charity I felt could go no further. Of the vicar, too, we heard better news. The restoration of the murals in his church had been completed. He had been taken from the private mental home to see the work. And this had brought about a wonderful improvement. It was hoped that he would be allowed to leave the home very soon. All this Vincent and I had found out on our arrival in Hastings, and we were now sitting comfortably in front of a fire, drinking some of my aunt’s excellent sherry, waiting for our guests. Beef, of course, was to be there. He and the Reverend Alfred Ridley were due any time from the station. Inspector Arnold was coming, and Beef had insisted on our asking Amelia Pinhole. “A good feed and some drinks will do the old girl a pile of good,” he had said. “It’ll mean a lot to her, and, after all, she did help us clear it up. I can just hear her telling her friends about the party afterwards.”
Alfred Ridley, the vicar, had really behaved very well in settling up his murdered brother’s estate. He had gone carefully into the whole publishing racket which his brother had carried on as Thomas Thayer, Publisher, and made restitution where he could. He had changed the name of the firm to the Church of England Theological Publishing Company. I had a feeling, remembering the man, that it would prosper. Greenleaf, too, he had helped; and, as Michael Thorogood had prophesied, Greenleaf already promised to make a name for himself. He had, as Inspector Arnold foretold, been released almost at once after the meeting in my flat.
When all the guests had arrived and sherry had been served, we went in to dinner. Mary, given carte blanche, excelled herself.
It was genius on her part. The whole dinner was period, an early Edwardian dinner. It was exactly like the illustrations to an early copy of Mrs. Beeton. Soup, fish, loin of veal, pheasants, a medley of sweets and cheese, cooked in her inimitable way and served in almost forgotten profusion. Wines, that would have even won George Saintsbury’s approval, were served with every course, sherry, hock, claret, champagne and a really excellent brandy that Mary must have found in some far corner of my aunt’s cellar. How Aunt Aurora would have enjoyed it all, I could not help thinking. Her dining-room with its solid comfortable furniture and glass chandeliers was the setting. For this atmosphere Amelia Pinhole seemed just right. Her large bust and old-fashioned coiffure blended with the scene and the dim light of the candles softened her heavily rouged features. She and Beef were the life of the party. We all drank a lot of very good wine, and the last scene I remember of the party, after Ridley’s clergyman brother had gone to bed, was Beef thumping away accompaniments on the piano and Amelia Pinhole singing. When she was too hoarse to continue, with an exaggerated old-world leave-taking she left us, and with her went Inspector Arnold who had offered to drive her home.
“I’m going home in the arms of the law,” were her final words as the front door closed behind them.
Vincent and Edith claimed they were tired and also departed to bed. Edith had slightly improved with marriage, but I still could not understand my brother’s choice and, from the few words I had had with her, nor could the matron or the boys in his House.
Beef and I were at last left alone.
“Just a nightcap,” he said, pouring out two large liqueur brandies. There was no sign that he had drunk the best part of a bottle of champagne in addition to a number of glasses of sherry, hock and claret.
“I suppose now you’ve got all this money you won’t want to bother with writing up my cases any more?” he said, and for the first time I thought, though it may have been the drink, I detected a note of regret in Beef’s voice.
“Oh, there’s not as much money as all that,” I said. “The death duties were heavier than we thought, and most of my aunt’s shares are well down. No, I shall carry on.”
“Well, in that case,” he said, “we’ll get back to London tomorrow. You can then lock yourself up in that flat of yours and write up this case. Should make a good story, if you tell it right. I’m getting tired of people not having heard of me and having to play second fiddle to all these other clever detectives.”
“All right, Beef,” I replied. “I’ll do my best.”
As I turned to go upstairs and looked round the house I could not help thinking of Estelle Pinkerton in some lonely cell, but then I caught sight of a portrait of my Aunt Aurora and the momentary feeling of compassion passed.
— THE END —