Chapter I




Deputy Commander Bobby Owen, C.I.D., his hands in his pockets, whistling very badly the latest popular tune from the latest American musical, was looking out of a window of the West Mercian police headquarters in the pleasant little country town of Penton, once upon a time the capital of the kingdom of Mercia, but now not even the capital of the county. That distinction had been basely stolen by some upstart of a place in East Mercia, not more than six or seven hundred years old, at a time when Penton was still recovering from having been burnt down once or twice during the wars of the barons. And what the Deputy Commander was thinking as he gazed absently into a street where Tudor, Stuart, and even earlier buildings rubbed shoulders with the latest multiple-store buildings in the latest fashionable style was that when he became a policeman he had never expected to become a schoolmaster as well.

Recently he had been giving a course of three lectures to the West Mercian police, basing them largely on the Howe edition of Gross’s Criminal Investigation. Members of neighbouring police forces had been invited to attend, and had done so in large numbers. There had been discussions following each lecture, and finally Major Rowley, West Mercian Chief Constable, had offered small money prizes for the three best essays on these Bobby Owen lectures.

To this offer the response had been almost embarrassing in its plenitude, and as Major Rowley had not wished to adjudicate himself, for fear of being thought to show bias towards his own men, he had asked Bobby Owen to undertake the task. So here Bobby was, playing schoolmaster, as he told himself trying to mark fairly what were in effect examination papers, and more than a little worried by the unfamiliar task, since on its competent performance so much depended for the essayists. Not so much, of course, on account of the monetary value of the small prizes offered, as because success would mean better prospects of promotion in a service in which promotion is often slow and difficult.

And very difficult Bobby was finding it to penetrate both behind the stiff and formal official language too many of the men had been trained to use, and also behind the difficulty others found in expressing themselves. Yet only thus could be formed a clear estimate of the degree of clarity of thought and grasp of essential principles lying nearly smothered beneath turgid language and muddled syntax.

Now, as he was turning back from the window to resume his task, there came a knock at the door, and Major Rowley appeared with an apology for an interruption which as a matter of fact Bobby welcomed rather than otherwise. The Chief Constable was a brisk, energetic man, of middle age, but still something of an all-round athlete, slightly below average height, but of square, strong build, with a quick, glancing eye that missed little, and a prominent nose above a firmly closed mouth. Behind him were many years of police service in India. He had the name of being a strict disciplinarian—too much so, indeed, in days when the emphasis has passed from demanding obedience to winning co-operation. Bobby had, however, found him pleasant to work with, appreciative of the lectures delivered, and, as Bobby knew, he had the reputation of having considerably improved the efficiency of the force he commanded.

“Getting on all right?” he asked, with an approving glance at a desk where the piles of essays were evidently being sorted out into groups of differing merit.

“More or less,” Bobby answered, still slightly worried by his unfamiliar task. “I’ve weeded out about half that I don’t think amount to much. I don’t know if you would care to look through them yourself and see if you think any of them should have another reading?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Rowley answered. “I want to be able to say I’ve had nothing to do with the judging.” He began to fidget in an awkward and rather embarrassed manner with the piled-up essays on the desk. “There’s a local big-wig here,” he said. “He wants to know if you can spare time to see him. I had to promise to ask. No confidence in country bumpkins like us. He wants the pure milk of Scotland Yard.”

“Well, he can’t have it, that’s all,” declared Bobby, well aware of all the work waiting for him in London. “There’s a discipline board I’ve got to attend as well as the newest re-organization committee. Who is he, anyway?”

Major Rowley countered by another question.

“Ever heard of Stephen Asprey?” he asked. “You know that thing of his: ‘In gold and sumptuous velvet go the stars’? Always being quoted.”

“Oh, is that his?” exclaimed Bobby, surprised. “I always thought it was Shakespeare or somebody. I remember Asprey was all the go when I was up at Oxford. Hadn’t heard much about him lately. Dead, isn’t he? Where does he come in?”

“Mr. Day-Bell,” the Major went on, reverting now to Bobby’s earlier question, “is the clergyman at Hillings-under-Moor, about ten or twelve miles from here. On the fringe of the Great Mercian Moor and a scattered, lonely sort of place. Janet Merton lived near there, and she is buried in Hillings churchyard.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Bobby exclaimed, as old memories began to return to him. “They were lovers, weren’t they? Asprey and her. Isn’t there some story about Asprey having put their love-letters in her coffin to be buried with her?”

“All his last poems, too, according to one version,” Rowley said. “I don’t think that’s known for certain, but it is certain that he wrote to her continually when they were apart, and that he published nothing during those years, though he used to say Janet had rekindled his Muse and the world would one day know what it owed her. There’s always been a good deal of talk about reopening the grave and recovering the letters and manuscripts if they are really there, and recently it’s been revived. There was a question about it in Parliament, and the Home Secretary said the request would receive favourable consideration if application were made.”

“Well, then, that’s all right, isn’t it?” Bobby asked. “If the Home Office gives permission that’s all that’s necessary.”

“Not quite all,” Rowley explained. “The grave is the freehold of the Merton family, and is now in the name of Miss Christabel Merton. She’s a niece of Janet Merton’s, and she says she will never agree to its opening. It was what they wanted and they loved each other, and she won’t have her aunt’s resting-place disturbed. Mrs. Asprey—Asprey’s widow—backs her up, and she’s a formidable old lady.”

“I don’t see what say she has from the legal point of view,” Bobby remarked, “but Miss Christabel is clearly within her rights. Nothing doing if she holds out. What’s Mr. Day-Bell worrying about? He’s the Vicar, didn’t you say?”

“He seems to think,” Major Rowley answered, “that attempts may be made to open the grave one night—without permission.”

“Well, of course, that would be illegal,” Bobby pointed out. “Fine or imprisonment. Or is it only a fine? I forget. And of course anything taken from the grave would have to be returned, if Miss Merton insisted. At least, I suppose so. Anyhow, it’s Mr. Day-Bell’s responsibility if he’s the Vicar.”

“No, priest-in-charge, I think they call it, or curate-in-charge, or something like that,” the Major corrected him. “The last Rector, not Vicar—a Mr. Thorne—disappeared about two years ago. He left the rectory one night for what he told his house-keeper was to be an evening stroll before bed. He has never been seen or heard of since. The Bishop put Mr. Day-Bell in charge after a time, but I gather there are legal difficulties in the way of declaring the benefice vacant. Parson’s freehold, you know, and his daughter has started legal proceedings in restraint. She claims that her father may return, that his absence may not be voluntary, that there is no proof of wilful neglect and that if he returns and proves his absence was by force majeure, then the Bishop would have acted ultra vires.”

“A jolly little legal fight on hand, I can see that,” Bobby agreed. “Lawyers’ idea of a fun fair, I should say. Who is fighting it? Costs will run pretty high, won’t they?”

“It’s Mr. Thorne’s daughter,” Rowley explained. “She’s married and a practising barrister, and so is her husband. The Hillings living is one of the best endowed in the country. In the sixteenth century a pasture field was left to the parish for ever, and it’s where all this part of the High Street has been built. Ground rents run high, and she doesn’t mean to let all that money go out of the family if she can help. And I daresay the case is quite a useful advertisement for her. Gets her well known to solicitors.”

“Nothing ever found to explain Thorne’s dis-appearance?”

“Nothing definite. Lots of gossip, of course. He was rather heavily in debt. He had lost a packet, speculating on the Stock Exchange. There were hints that he had got himself compromised with some woman who vanished about the same time. Nothing ever proved, but he had got the name of being inclined to be a little too friendly with some of his women parishioners. And suggestions that he had opened the Janet Merton grave on the quiet and gone off with what was buried with her.”

“Good lord!” Bobby exclaimed. “The thing’s opening out all right. But what for? What good would the buried poems be to him? He couldn’t make any use of them. If he did, he would have to explain how he got hold of them.”

“Well, that’s another angle again,” Major Rowley explained, though hesitatingly. “It’s not so much Asprey’s last poems, though some of these high-brow johnnies talk as if recovering them would be like recovering a lost play by Shakespeare. It’s the letters—those he wrote to Janet during their intimacy. There’s reason to think there’s a lot in them about his friendship with the young Duchess of Blegborough. If you remember, she died from what was said to be an overdose of sleeping tablets. It was all very much hushed up. The verdict at the inquest was ‘Death by Misadventure.’ Probably her husband didn’t want it brought in as suicide. Natural enough if that were all, but—well, ugly stories got about that the Duke knew a good deal more than he said at the inquest; and that others knew still more, but were frightened or bribed into keeping their mouths shut.”

“I’m beginning to remember the case,” Bobby said. “It never came up to us at the Yard.”

“It was all very hush-hush,” Rowley repeated. “The whispers going round were very low whispers indeed. I happened to know of them because an old Indian colleague of mine had a lot to do with handling the case and he wasn’t at all happy about the whole thing. He told me the Duke wanted to take action against the whisperers, but his lawyers wouldn’t let him. There was nothing he could lay hold of, and the only result would be to give the stories wider publicity and make people think there must be something in them. While if he kept quiet, they would die out of their own accord.”

“You say ‘ugly’ stories,” Bobby remarked. “What precisely were they?”

“Well, of course, you won’t let it go any further,” Rowley replied, still rather unwillingly, “but it was said that the Duke was jealous of Asprey, believed his wife had been unfaithful, and—well, suppose he had slipped just one or two extra tablets into the dose his wife took? Murder, in short.”

“There may be evidence of some sort in the buried Asprey letters?” Bobby asked again. “You know, that’s pretty serious.”

“Opportunity for blackmail,” Rowley said. “Presumably the Duke would pay a good price for letters like that if anyone got hold of them.”

“Nice reputation this Mr. Thorne seems to have,” observed Bobby. “Stock Exchange gambler. Woman chaser. Desecrator of graves. Potential blackmailer.”

“Very likely it’s all mere malicious gossip,” Rowley said uncomfortably, “except of course for Thorne’s disappearance. That’s a fact. It’s why Day-Bell wants to talk to you. He says if you at the Yard will take the case up and find out what really happened to Thorne, then everyone will be satisfied and all the gossip will die down.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t think I can do that off my own bat,” Bobby protested. “I should think his best plan would be to get his lawyers to work the thing up. If they can present a reasonable case for further investigation, supported by the next of kin—there’s a wife and daughter, you said—the Commissioner might take it up. I don’t know. I expect he would want to consult the Home Office. I don’t see there’s much to be done—not after two years. Quite possibly Mr. Thorne is living very happily somewhere in South America with his unidentified woman—and the Asprey documents in reserve for possible use if and when trouble crops up. It’s a queer business, though. Compromising letters. Lost poems of a dead poet. A desecrated grave. A mysterious disappearance. Possible blackmail. A Ducal suspect. And all as vague and unsubstantial as a November fog.”

“The worst of it,” Rowley went on, “is that there’s a lot of back-stairs stuff going on. The man behind that question in Parliament is a Mr. Pyle. He’s a chairman of the Morning Daily group. His brother is editor of Morning Daily itself. He could start one of those Press stunts any time he wanted. Morning Daily is an awful rag.”

“Yes, I know,” Bobby agreed. “We don’t want them butting in if we can help it.”

“Then there’s Mrs. Asprey—Asprey’s widow,” Rowley added. “She’s rigged herself up rooms in an old half-ruined house near here—Two Mile End.”

“What for?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know,” Rowley answered. “I suppose she wants to be on the spot. Then there’s the Duke of Blegborough; and a duke is still a duke, even under Socialism.”

“Even more so, I’m told,” Bobby remarked.

“Day-Bell himself as well,” Rowley went on. “He has a big pull with the joint Committee. Both the Days and the Bells are old local families with a lot of say in local affairs, and Mr. Day-Bell has family connections on both sides. Born a Day and tacked on Bell under a family will. Rather a pushing sort, too. And a poor devil of a Chief Constable likely to come under pretty heavy cross-fire between the lot of them. I should be really grateful if you would have a chat with Day-Bell and try to choke him off, if you can. He did say something about fresh developments he would like to consult you about.”