Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (24 page)

I cannot walk towards that beautiful, black velvet curtain, because because because because I am not on my feet and this board strapped to my back isn’t a board at all it’s the floor. But no one can have the floor strapped to his back. No, a very sound point, if you allow me to say so. I am lying on the floor. Lying on the floor. Good. Why am I lying on the floor? Because because because – I remember now – something came out of the velvet curtain and caught me a crack. A very dirty crack. Joke. In that case I am dead. The problem of whatjercallit is now solved. Problem of Survival. Life after death. I am dead, but aware of existence.
Cogito, ergo sum
. Therefore I have Survived. I am one of the Great Majority. Or am I? Possibly I am not
dead
. The dead, surely, do not suffer from bloody awful headaches. It’s not in the contract at all. So I’m alive. I’ve proved it by incontro – uncontro – whatever it is, logic. Well, well, well.

Nigel put his hand to the side of his head. Sticky. Blood. Very slowly he dragged himself to his feet, felt his way to the wall and switched on the lights. Their sudden glare stunned him for a moment. When he could open his eyes again, he looked round the hall. It was empty. Empty except for an old putter and the carbon copy of the diary which lay on the floor. Nigel became aware that he was cold. His shirt was all unbuttoned. He buttoned it up, bent down painfully to collect the putter and the diary, and struggled upstairs carrying them.

Georgia regarded him sleepily from the bed.

‘Hello, darling. Did you have a nice round of golf?’ she said.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, no. A bird wonked me with this. Not cricket. Not golf, I mean. On the head.’

Nigel beamed fatuously at Georgia and slid, not without grace, to the floor.

16

‘DARLING, YOU’RE NOT
to get up.’

‘I certainly am going to get up. I’ve got to see old Shrivellem this morning.’

‘You can’t get up when you’ve got a hole in your head.’

‘Hole or no hole, I’m going to see old Shrivellem. Get them to send up some breakfast. The car’ll be here at ten. You can come with me if you like and see that I don’t tear the bandage off in my delirium.’

Georgia’s voice trembled. ‘Oh, my sweet, and to think I kept on reminding you to get your hair cut. And it was your thick hair saved you – and your thick head. And you’re not going to get up.’

‘Darling Georgia, I love you more than ever, and I
am
going to get up. I began to see the light last night, before that bird made a pass at me with the putter. And I’ve a feeling old Shrivellem will be able to – besides, it’ll be no harm to put myself under the protection of the military for a few hours.’

‘Why – you don’t think he’d try it again? Who was it?’

‘Search me. No, I don’t anticipate a repetition of the outrage. Not really. Not in broad daylight. Besides, my shirt was unbuttoned.’

‘Nigel, are you sure you aren’t wandering?’

‘Quite sure.’

While Nigel was having breakfast, Inspector Blount was shown in. The Inspector looked rather worried.

‘Your good wife has been telling me you refuse to stay in bed. Are you sure you’re quite up to –?’

‘Yes, of course I am. I thrive on blows from putters. By the way, did you find any fingerprints on it?’

‘No. The leather’s too rough to take impressions. We found a queer thing, though.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The French windows in the dining room here were unlocked. The waiter swears he locked them up at ten o’clock last night.’

‘Well, what’s queer about that? The bird who clouted me must have got in and out somehow.’

‘How could he get in if they were locked? Are you suggesting he had an accomplice?’

‘He could have got in before ten o’clock, and hidden himself – or herself, couldn’t he?’

‘Well, it’s just possible. But how could any outsider know that you’d be sitting up till all hours – till the lights had been turned off in the hall and he could attack you without being seen?’

‘I see,’ said Nigel slowly. ‘Yes, I see.’

‘It doesn’t look too well for Felix Cairnes.’

‘Have you any explanation why Felix, having paid for the services of a not inexpensive detective, should then proceed to bat him over the head with a golf club?’ asked Nigel, examining a piece of toast. ‘Wouldn’t that be – as they somewhat inelegantly express it – fouling his own nest?’

‘Maybe – mind you, it’s only a suggestion – maybe he had some reason for wanting you disabled just now.’

‘Well, presumably there
must
have been some such idea at the back of my – er – assailant’s head. I mean, he wasn’t just practising strokes in the hall,’ Nigel
chaffed
the Inspector. But he was thinking, Felix did seem rather obstructive about this little visit of mine to General Shrivenham. Blount still looked harassed.

He said, ‘But that isn’t really the queer thing. You see, Mr Strangeways, we’ve found fingerprints on the key and inside handle of the French windows and also on the handle and glass outside. As though someone had closed it with one hand on the glass and one on the handle.’

‘I don’t see anything so bizarre about that.’

‘Wait a minute though. The prints are not those of anyone on the hotel staff, nor do they belong to anyone so far connected with the case. And there are no visitors but yourselves staying here now.’

Nigel sat up with a jerk that sent a twinge of pain through his head.

‘So it couldn’t have been Felix after all.’

‘That’s what’s so queer. Cairnes would have struck you down, and then unlocked the French window – using a handkerchief when he turned the key – to suggest you had been attacked by someone from outside. But who left those prints on the outside of the window?’

‘This is too much,’ groaned Nigel. ‘Dragging a mysterious unknown into the case just when – oh well, I’ll leave that to you. It will give you something to do while I’m talking to General Shrivenham …’

Half an hour later, Nigel and Georgia were tucking themselves into the back of the hired car. And it was just at that moment that a housemaid, belated
in
her work as a result of Blount’s early-morning investigations in the hotel, entered the bedroom of Phil Rattery …

A little before eleven o’clock their car drew up outside General Shrivenham’s house. The front door was opened and they entered a spacious lounge-hall whose walls and floors were covered with tiger skins and other trophies of the chase. Even Georgia recoiled slightly from the ferocious, white-fanged jaws that grinned at them from all sides.

‘D’you think one of the servants has to clean their teeth every morning?’ she whispered to Nigel.

‘More than probable. Mine eyes dazzle. They died young.’

The maid opened a door on the left of the hall. From it there proceeded the faint, whinging aerial music of a clavichord; someone was rendering, with rather moderate skill, Bach’s Prelude in C Major. The tiny, dainty notes seemed drowned by the voiceless roaring of all the tigers in the hall. The prelude closed in a long, quivering whine, and the unseen player launched out industriously upon the fugue. Georgia and Nigel stood fascinated. Finally the music ended. They heard a voice say, ‘Who? What? Oh, why didn’t you show them in? Can’t have people standing about in the passage.’

An old gentleman appeared at the door, clad in knickerbockers, Norfolk coat, and a tweed fishing hat. He blinked at them mildly with his faded blue eyes.

‘Admiring my trophies?’

‘Yes. And the music too,’ said Nigel. ‘The most lovely of the preludes, isn’t it?’

‘I’m glad to hear you say so. I think it is, but then I’m quite unmusical. Unmusical. ’S matter of fact, I’m still teaching myself to play. Bought this instrument a few months ago. Clavichord. Beautiful instrument. The kind of music you’d expect fairies to dance to. Ariel’s spirits, you know. What did you say your name was?’

‘Strangeways. Nigel Strangeways. This is my wife.’

The General shook hands with them both, eyeing Georgia with a markedly flirtatious look. Georgia smiled at him, fighting down an almost irrepressible desire to ask this charming old gentleman whether he always wore a tweed fishing hat to play Bach. It seemed to her the most entirely suitable wear.

‘We’ve got a letter of introduction from Frank Cairnes.’

‘Cairnes? Yes. Poor fellow, his little boy was run over, you know. Killed. Terrible tragedy. I say, he hasn’t lost his reason, has he?’

‘No. Why?’

‘Extraordinary thing happened the other day. Extraordinary. In Cheltenham. I go over and have tea there every Thursday, at Banners’. I do a flick and then have tea. Best chocolate cakes in England at Banners’ – you ought to try ’em. Make a pig of myself. Well, anyway, I went into Banners’ and I could have
sworn
it was Cairnes sitting at a table in the corner. Smallish fellow, with a beard. Cairnes went away from the village here a couple of months ago, you know, but I rather think he was starting his beard before he left. Don’t like beards myself. Wear ’em in the navy, I know, but the navy haven’t won a battle since Trafalgar, don’t know what’s wrong with ’em, look at the Mediterranean now. Where was I? Oh yes, Cairnes. Well, this chap who I thought was Cairnes – I went over to speak to him but he shot away like a stoat, he and this other fella who was sitting with him, big fella with a moustache, looked a bit of a bounder to me. I mean Cairnes – or the chap I thought was Cairnes – shot away like a stoat and hustled the other fella, the bounder, along with him. I called out his name after him, but he didn’t pay any attention, so I said to myself, that fella can’t be Cairnes at all. Then afterwards I thought, well maybe it was Cairnes and he’s lost his memory, like those chaps in the BBC – you know the SOS messages. That’s why I asked you if Cairnes had lost his reason. Always was a bit of a queer fish, Cairnes, but I can’t understand his going about with a bounder like that fellow in Banners’ if he was in his right mind.’

‘Do you remember what date that was?’

‘Let me see. It was the week –’ The General consulted a pocket diary. ‘Yes, here we are, August the 12th.’

Nigel had promised Felix that he would keep the Rattery affair dark when he talked with the General, but the General seemed to have landed himself
unwittingly
into the middle of it. For the present, he felt inclined to relax in this charming, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, where a retired warrior played the clavichord and accepted as the most natural thing in the world the arrival of a stranger with a bandaged head and a famous wife. General Shrivenham was already deep in conversation with Georgia, on the subject of bird life in the valleys of Northern Burma. Nigel sat back, trying to fit into his tentative pattern the odd little episode which had befallen the General in Banners’ tea shop. His thoughts were interrupted at last by the General saying, ‘I see your husband has been in the wars lately.’

‘Yes,’ said Nigel, feeling his bandage tenderly. ‘As a matter of fact a chap hit me over the head with a putter.’

‘A putter? Well, I’m not surprised. Get all sorts of rag, tag and bobtail on golf courses today. Not that it was ever much of a game – stationary ball, like potting at a sitting bird, not a gentlemen’s game at all. Look at the Scotch – they imported it – the most uncivilised race in Europe – no art, no music, no poetry to speak of, Burns excepted of course, and look at their idea of food – haggis and Edinburgh rock. Show me how a nation eats and I’ll show you its soul. Polo, now – that’s a different matter. Used to play a bit myself in India. Polo. Golf is just polo with all the difficulty and excitement taken out of it. A prose version of polo, a paraphrase of it; typical of the Scots, reducing everything to their own prosy level
– they
had to paraphrase the Psalms even. Horrible. Vandals. Barbarians. I bet this fella who hit you with the putter had Scottish blood in his veins. Fine troops they make, mind you. About all they’re good for.’

Nigel unwillingly interrupted the General’s polemic, and explained the reason for his visit. He was concerned in the Rattery murder case and wanted to find out more about their family history. The dead man’s father had been in the army – Cyril Rattery; fell in the South African War. Could General Shrivenham put him on to somebody who might have known Cyril Rattery?

‘Rattery? Good Lord, he
is
the chap then. When I saw about this case in the papers, I wondered if the fella had anything to do with Cyril Rattery. His son, you say? Well, I don’t wonder. There’s bad blood in that family. Look here, have a glass of sherry and I’ll tell you what I know about it. No, no trouble at all. I always take a glass of sherry and a biscuit in the middle of the morning.’

The General trotted out of the room and returned with a decanter and a plate of Romary biscuits. When they were all provided with refreshment, he began to talk, his eyes lighting up with a certain relish of reminiscence.

‘There was a scandal about Cyril Rattery, you know. I wonder the papers haven’t dragged it out again; it must have been hushed up at the time better than these things usually are. He went through the early part of the war with gallantry, but, when we began to get
the
upper hand, he cracked. One of those fellas who keep a stiff upper lip, y’know – scared to death, really, like the rest of us, only they won’t admit it even to themselves – and then one day the whole thing blows up. I came across him once or twice, in the early days when the Boers were teaching us our job. Magnificent fellows, the Boers. Mind you, I’m only an old cut-and-thrust, but I know a rare type when I see one. Cyril Rattery was. Too good for the army. Ought to have been a poet: But even then he struck me as a bit – what do they call it nowadays? – a bit neurotic. Neurotic. Conscience, too. He had too much conscience. Cairnes is another fella like that, but that’s by the way. The breaking point came when Cyril Rattery was sent out in command of a detachment to burn some farms. I don’t know all the details, but apparently the first farm they came to hadn’t been evacuated in time – there was some resistance and one or two of Rattery’s men were killed. The rest got a bit out of hand, and when they’d mopped up the opposition they set fire to the buildings without enquiring too carefully if there was anyone left in them. As it happened, there was a woman there, who’d stayed behind with her sick child. They were burnt to death, both of them. Mind you, in war those sort of accidents are bound to happen. Don’t like it myself – horrible. Nowadays you bomb non-combatants as a matter of course. Glad I’m too old to get mixed up in that sort of thing. Well anyway, this finished Cyril Rattery. He led his men straight back, refused to destroy the rest of the farms.
Disobeying
orders, of course. He was broken for it. Disgraced. That was the end of him, poor fellow.’

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