Read Down Under Online

Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Down Under (7 page)

Mr Smith's gaze removed, became veiled again and vague. He said in an abstracted voice,

“I don't know that I—er—quite caught that name.”

“Garstnet,” said Oliver. “Mrs Garstnet.”

Mr Smith removed the spectacles which he had pushed up on to his forehead and began to polish them with the white silk handkerchief.

“Surely a most unusual name?”

Oliver supposed it was, but he couldn't imagine why this should interest Mr Benbow Collingwood Horatio Smith. He said with controlled impatience,

“Mrs Garstnet was Rose Anne's nurse. She married the landlord of the Angel about ten years ago. Florrie is their only child.”

Mr Smith continued to polish.

“Ah—Florrie—” he said. And then, “Can you—er—tell me—what is the colour of—er—Florrie's hair?”

Oliver was startled into a stare. If it hadn't been for that recent impression, he might have suspected a bat or two in the upper storey. He said in a surprised voice,

“Red, sir. I think you'd call it red—a sort of dark copper.”

Mr Smith took out the shagreen case and put his spectacles away in it. He bestowed the case in one pocket and the white silk handkerchief in another. Then he said,

“That—er—puts the case in—er—quite a different light.”

“Florrie's hair?”

“I think we must have a very serious talk, Captain Loddon,” said Mr Smith.

CHAPTER VIII

A serious talk implies a talk of some length. They returned to their chairs.

Oliver wondered what was coming next. He was pricked with curiosity, startled a little out of his strained mood of grief. Mr Benbow Smith lay back with his head tilted and his gaze upon the ceiling. He appeared to be plunged in thought. On his perch in the window Ananias in deep offence continued his toilet. At intervals he glanced over a humped shoulder and emitted a slight angry hiss. Oliver was leaning back too. He had become conscious of great fatigue.

Moments passed, minutes passed.

Then Mr Smith began to speak in a gentle, abstracted voice.

“Difficult to know—er—just where to begin. There are so many threads, and they are all tangled—some of them mere gossamer—some of them perhaps—er—figments of the imagination—more perhaps—er—straws to show which way the wind is blowing. My friend Colonel Garratt has—er—no use for gossamer, and no opinion of straws, so, you see, it is all very difficult.”

Oliver saw nothing, so he said nothing. Mr Smith's gaze dropped upon him for a moment and then returned to the ceiling. In that moment Oliver received a strange reassurance. He waited, and the quiet voice went on.

“All very difficult, Captain Loddon. Well, I am going to make you a present of these difficult tangled threads. Do you—er—by any chance remember the Rennard case?”

“I remember the name. Years ago wasn't it—some kind of financial smash?”

“Ten years ago,” said Mr Smith. “Amos Rennard was tried at the Old Bailey on charges of fraud and conspiracy. He had played the game of fraudulent company-promoting with—er—unprecedented ingenuity and success. When he crashed he brought down a great many people with him. There was a very notable scandal—in fact a number of very notable scandals. Firms of old standing were ruined, many—er—important people had been victimised. On the fourth day of the trial, when it was perfectly evident that the verdict would be guilty, and the sentence an extremely heavy one, Mr Amos Rennard made a most spectacular escape from custody. As he was being taken out to the police van, the crowd—there was a considerable crowd—got out of hand. The people in front were pushed forward, and the police were rushed by a band of roughs. The affair was utterly unexpected and only lasted a couple of minutes, but when it was over Amos Rennard was found to have disappeared. There was a hue and cry, but he was never recaptured. The police were able to trace him to Rillingham, where he had his own private aerodrome. He took off in a fast machine piloted by a mechanic named Leyland. The aeroplane crashed in the channel, and Leyland's body was recovered and identified. There was no trace of Amos Rennard.” The slight hesitation had left Mr Smith's voice. “The police,” he said, “considered that the case was closed. Amos Rennard was dead, and all that remained to be done was to clear up the—er—very considerable mess. I may say that it was never satisfactorily cleared up. Immense sums could not be accounted for. The official theory was, and—er—still is, that Rennard had placed very large sums in various foreign banks under a number of different aliases—quite a common proceeding for criminals—and that as he was dead, the sums would simply continue to lie there unclaimed. The possibility of his having escaped was not neglected by Scotland Yard, but it was soon abandoned. Er—yes, Captain Loddon, I am of course aware that you must be wondering what possible connection there can be between the Rennard case and the disappearance of Miss Rose Anne Carew. I do not know that there is any connection. I am—er—offering you a number of tangled threads. The Rennard case is one of them.”

Oliver sat up frowning.

“But why—”

“Just a minute,” said Mr Smith. “There are more threads. Amos Rennard was a widower with two sons. They were lads of sixteen and seventeen at the time of the smash. A year later they took out a fishing-boat from Woolacombe in Devon. It was their intention to try for conger. I do not know if you know the North Devon coast. Immediately beyond Woolacombe it becomes extremely dangerous. There is a promontory known as the Norte, with a village beyond called Morthoe. The boat was found smashed upon the rocks, but the bodies of the two boys were never recovered. This was not considered strange, as the currents are so strong.”

“Well?” said Oliver.

Mr Smith raised his right hand.

“Amos Rennard disappears—his two sons disappear. He was an extremely affectionate father, in fact a man to whom family ties were very important indeed—perhaps a Scottish trait coming out. His mother was, I believe, a Highland woman, Jean Mackay. The red hair may have come into the family with her.”

Oliver said, “Red hair?” Florrie's red hair … Sheer lunacy this—or—a floating—gossamer—thread—

Mr Smith gave a slight vague nod.

“They—er—called him the Old Fox—Rennard the Fox. He was as red as his name and very proud of it. Please bear that in mind, Captain Loddon—he was most inordinately proud of his red hair, and of the fact that his sons inherited it. I would like you to bear this in mind.”

“I don't see where we're getting to, sir,” said Oliver. Red hair and a financial scandal ten years old—what had it got to do with Rose Anne—with Rose Anne?

Mr Smith changed his position. He sat up a little more and looked past Oliver at about the level of his shoulder, the effect being that he was slightly less aloof. Ananias glanced over an out-stretched wing, said “Awk?” in an enquiring voice, and was rebuked. He began to groom his tail feathers with the air of one who has proffered an olive branch and been rebuffed.

“Another thread,” said Mr Smith—“another—er—family tie. There was a nephew, a boy of about fourteen, a brother's son. The brother is dead. The widow apprenticed young Ernest Rennard as a mechanic at the Ledlington Motor Works. When he was eighteen he went on a day trip to Boulogne and fell overboard. That is to say, it was opined that he had fallen overboard. He was believed to have re-embarked at Boulogne, but he was nowhere to be found when the boat arrived at Folkestone. His ticket was never given up.” There was a slight pause, after which he added, “His mother bore her—er—loss with admirable fortitude.”

“You mean?” said Oliver.

Mr Smith raised a hand and let it fall again.

“I am merely offering you a thread. I do not ask you to attach any meaning to it—er—yet.”

Ananias chanted suddenly on a loud raucous note:

“And we're bound for the Rio Grande.”

“Ananias—
no!
” Mr Smith's tone was one of unusual firmness.

Ananias cocked his head on one side and dropped to a croon:

“Way—way—way—

Way down Rio—

Mr Smith said “No!” and the croon petered out.

“Four threads,” said Mr Smith. “Disappearance of Amos Rennard—disappearance of two young Rennards, his sons Mark and Philip—disappearance of Ernest Rennard, his nephew. These constitute the—er—first group of disappearances. We now come to the—er—second group, and it is here that I am on the—er—ground which my friend Colonel Garratt would describe as—er—legendary. He would not, I think, use that word, but it conveys his—er—meaning. He is the head of the Foreign Office Intelligence branch, and a man of great experience and ability. That being so, you are at liberty to consider that I have a—er—bee in my bonnet. Colonel Garratt would undoubtedly tell you so. He does not—er—mince his words.”

“You were going to tell me about a second group of disappearances,” said Oliver. He did not know where this was leading them, but through all his fatigue he was conscious of a quickening interest.

Mr Smith's gaze passed over him. He said,

“Yes—the second group. They date from about seven or eight years ago. Several thousand people disappear every year. It is, therefore, an extremely invidious task to take some of these disappearances and—er—group them. I cannot—er—prove that this grouping is other than arbitrary. I will begin with the year nineteen-twenty-eight. From the disappearances of that year I would—er—select that of the Reverend Luke Simpson. Mr Simpson was a young Non-conformist minister. He belonged to the denomination in which Amos Rennard had been brought up, and of which he was still a member at the time of the—er—crash. Mr Simpson had recently been appointed to the chapel at Ledlington. He was an entirely blameless young man and an extremely eloquent preacher. He was an orphan and a bachelor. He had no debts, no entanglements, and no vices. He went out for a walk along the Ledstow road on a foggy Sunday afternoon in November and was never seen again. In the December of the same year Dr Harold Spenlow disappeared from Sunningdale. He was a brilliant and rising young man on the eve of setting up in Harley Street. He had gone down to Sunningdale on a Saturday afternoon to play golf. He was in his usual spirits. He drove a friend as far as Virginia Water, and parted from him at the station at six-thirty. They had been talking of their round of golf, and had made an arrangement to play again on the following Saturday. Dr Spenlow drove away from the station and was never seen again. His car was found drawn up by the side of the road on Chobham Common. He might have been taking that way back to town, but it is highly improbable. Like Mr Simpson he had no debts or entanglements—in fact no discernible motive for a voluntary disappearance. Now, Captain Loddon, it would take too long to go into all the cases which I have—er—assigned to this second group, but it contains a good many—er—professional men—a clever architect, a chemist, a photographer, an engineer, an electrician. And all these men were young, of exceptional promise, and without close ties. None of them had any reason for suicide. There are other points of similarity. I have to some extent based my groupings on these points. During the year nineteen-thirty I observe a different type of disappearance. A number of young men in the building trade were missing. In some cases, the man was out of work, but in others he had walked out of a good job and never come back. There is one feature common to all these disappearances—in no case was the young man married or a widow's only son. All were good workmen and of a steady character—bricklayers, carpenters, and painters. In the last two or three years there has been a third class of disappearance—highly spectacular. You will doubtless remember the case of the Polish violinist, Josef Piglosiewiec. He had a very successful concert tour in this country in the autumn of nineteen-thirty-four. His last appearance was at the Town Hall at Reading, where he had an enthusiastic reception. Owing to the number of encores it was past half past five when he came out. A car had been ordered to drive him to Guildford, where he had a private engagement. It appeared afterwards that this car had been countermanded by someone speaking over the telephone and using M. Piglosiewiec's name, but at the time this was not known. When he left the hall a man in chauffeur's uniform touched his hat and indicated a waiting car. It was a dark and foggy night. M. Piglosiewiec got in and was driven away. Like Mr Simpson and Dr Spenlow he was never seen again. The car was never traced. The affair created a considerable sensation.”

“Yes, I remember. The accompanist went too, didn't he?”

“Yes—they were together. He was a fellow Pole. Neither was traced. Then, later in that same year—in December, I think—Violette de Parme, the brilliant young French dancer, disappeared in Paris. She was rehearsing the—er—star role in a new ballet, and a great many people were very seriously inconvenienced, but public opinion declined to take the affair seriously. People shrugged their shoulders and—er—smiled. It was considered that the lady was amusing herself, and that she would return when it suited her to do so. When she did not return she was soon forgotten. During nineteen-thirty-five I find the disappearance of two crooners, a jazz pianist, a negro saxophonist, and half a dozen variety artists. None of them in the front rank, but all clever rising young men and women with the prizes of their profession before them—not failures, Captain Loddon, not elderly discouraged men and women, but young people well on the way to success.”

Mr Smith had been speaking in an inexpressive monotone, but now he changed it. Leaning a little forward, he said with some emphasis,

“It was the cases relating to the—er virtuoso class which attracted my—er—particular attention. I found myself working backwards towards the Rennard case. The threads I followed often—er—broke, often tangled, but those points of—er—similarity to which I referred a little while ago recurred continually. I became convinced of the importance of the Rennard case.”

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