On Monday morning while he breakfasted at a little table in the bow window of his room, there was knock at the door. Freddie looked up from his plate of bacon and eggs, wondering who it could be. Billy, who was packing Freddie’s suitcase, left off this task to answer it.
The local constable, Robert Cochrane, stood in the hallway. He looked relieved to see Billy, for the two had been friends from childhood.
“G’morning, Bill. I’d like to speak to your Mr. Freddie, please, if you don’t mind.”
“What’s this about, Rob?” Billy asked.
“It’s that cousin of his, Mr. Babington-Loewes. He’s gone missing.”
“Missing?” said Billy; from immediately behind him came an echo: “Wilfrid’s missing?” He turned to find that Freddie had left his seat at the table to join them at the door.
“That’s right, Mr. Babington,” Rob answered. “He left Abbotshill last Friday night and no one’s seen him since.” Noting that Freddie was still in his dressing-gown, he added apologetically, “I don’t wish to trouble you. I know you’ve been poorly and I wouldn’t’ve come if it wasn’t important.”
“Quite all right, constable. Please, do come in. How can I help you?” Freddie asked as he returned to his chair; he would’ve invited Rob to have a seat as well, but knew that the constable would think it an impertinence to sit down with a gentleman while performing his official duties.
“We’re talking to everyone who saw Mr. Babington-Loewes just before he went,” Rob explained. “Now, you spoke to him Friday morning in Abbot’s Lane, didn’t you, Mr. Babington?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“He didn’t say where he might be off to afterwards?”
“No, I’m afraid not. We didn’t part on friendly terms.”
Rob nodded. “You had a quarrel.”
Billy bristled, but Freddie answered calmly, “It’s no secret that the Babington-Loeweses have coveted Abbot House since my grandfather’s day. They have some idea that they’ve been cheated out of property that isn’t rightfully theirs and they’ve been troubling my aunt Dorothea about it.”
“That’s what you come to Abbotshill about?” asked Rob.
“Yes. I meant to speak to Wilfrid more formally, but we met in the lane. He’d just seen my aunt, as a matter of fact. He made her an offer to buy Abbot House, then made the same offer to me in anticipation of her passing on. I told him I didn’t care to sell either. He refused to accept my answer.”
“Now who told you about that quarrel, Rob?” Billy demanded.
Rob was acutely embarrassed. “It was Mrs. Babington-Loewes,” he admitted.
“Aunt Lydia!” Freddie cried; to Billy, he added, “I’m not in the least surprised,” then turned back to Rob to ask, “What did she tell you?”
“I’m very sorry to repeat it to you, Mr. Babington,” Rob answered reluctantly, “but when we asked Mrs. Babington-Loewes if she’d any idea of her son’s whereabouts, she said that if anything’d happened to him, we oughter look to you.”
Billy let out a yelp of disgust.
Freddie was also outraged by this slander against him, but he was determined not to take his anger out on the hapless constable. “I give you my word I had nothing to do with Wilfrid’s disappearance,” he said. “Some harsh words were spoken between us, but we didn’t come to blows. Wilfrid was angry when he went on his way, but he was unharmed. I haven’t seen him since. Billy will confirm what I say.”
“It’s just as Mr. Freddie says,” Billy affirmed, although all three were well aware that he would swear to whatever Freddie wanted him to whether it was true or not.
Rob nodded solemnly. “I’ll take you at your word. I hope you won’t have be bothered again, Mr. Babington.”
Billy saw Rob to the door, but he was scowling as he shut it. “What a nerve! Mrs. Babington-Loewes practically saying you’d made away with him and sending that Rob Cochrane here to question you.”
“Don’t hold it against him, Billy,” said Freddie as he quickly finished his breakfast. “Once he heard that I’d quarreled with Wilfrid, he had to ask me about it. You can’t fault him for doing his duty.”
“No,” Billy relented grudgingly. “But what about that vicious old biddy? She means trouble for you. She was here the other day, asking for you. She’ll tell any hurtful tale she can whether she believes it or not.”
“I know she does, but I’ve no idea where her son’s run off to. I’m not worried about what she has to say. Rob Cochrane can’t arrest me just because Aunt Lydia thinks I’ve murdered her son. If he comes to question me again, I will simply tell the truth: I don’t know where Wilfrid is. If Aunt Lydia attempts to make a nuisance of herself, you must throw her out.”
Billy regarded him with surprise, and Freddie laughed.
“No, I don’t suppose we can toss an old lady out onto the village green like a drunken farm-hand, no matter how offensive she is. Billy, if my Aunt Lydia comes to see me, you must say I’m too ill to receive visitors.” He laid his knife and fork carefully across his plate. “I think we’d better stay on awhile longer.”
“No!” cried Billy, perceiving his intention. “You aren’t running around looking for Mr. Wilfrid just to show up his mother. You said you were through playing detective. Let Rob find him. That’s best. You aren’t up to it.”
“Of course you’re right,” Freddie agreed. “All the same, I’m curious about what’s happened to him. I don’t feel as if we can leave until I know. Besides, I expect the police will want me to remain here until the matter is cleared up. Send a wire to Uncle Hill for me, will you? Tell him we’ve been delayed.”
As Freddie shed his dressing gown and headed for the bathroom to wash up, Billy began to unpack the suitcase.