A Louse for the Hangman
Carolus decided to be the first at the breakfast table in the morning because it was there that the family received their post. But he was disappointed if he were expecting any sensational reactions, for Lord Penge did not appear, and the only person who made any comment on the letters read was Lady Penge.
“Cara is having another baby,” she said to Hermione. “I did think she’d have a free year, didn’t you? I suppose I shall have to go.”
Hermione stared at her mother.
“She said nothing about it last night. She was on the telephone about Roger. She wants to dump him somewhere.”
“That’s probably why. Her letter talks of ‘any moment’, but you know what she is. However, there’s no one else, so I shall go at once. Today.”
“You wouldn’t like to take me, would you?”
“Love to, but of course I can’t. They can only just manage me, and the two of us be out of the question.” Lady Penge turned to Carolus. “We are speaking of my niece, Mr. Deene. Or rather my cousin’s daughter, which seems much the same thing. She’s making up for the small families of the last fifty years in our family. She already has four, and is now expecting her fifth.”
“You’re leaving, Mother?” asked Ron.
“Yes, dear. Must. You know Cara.”
Lady Penge waved her packet of letters in explanation, but it did not shew any of them the letter which had summoned her. Her announcement seemed to cast a gloom over them all.
But when Carolus met Lord Penge a few minutes later he found a different outcome of the morning’s post.
“I have had another of these dam’ letters,” he said bitterly. “You’d better come and look at it, Deene.”
“It has the Highcastle postmark on it.”
Carolus examined the piece of paper. It was, he thought, of the same quality as that used for the previous letters, and the type appeared similar. But this was the shortest note of all. It read simply: Any minute now. You know why. Spider.”
“This is the first since Ratchett’s death, and doesn’t doesn’t mention that. Isn’t it rather strange? Is it possible that they are not connected?” asked Lord Penge.
“I think they’re connected all right.”
“You mean that in your view the person who sends these letters shot Michael Ratchett?”
“I suppose that makes it a far graver matter. It means that my life really is in instant danger. I did not feel that so much about the poisoning episode of Saturday evening, oddly enough. There seemed to be something almost unreal about that.”
“I think there was.”
“But this is not unreal. The flippant, confident way in which it is written only makes it more threatening. Are we dealing with a madman, Deene?”
“I don’t think so. By the way, I am going down to Eastbourne today.”
“Indeed? Something connected with Worsdyke?”
“That and another matter. I have to see a Dr. Boncourt.”
“You know what you’re doing, of course. I can only ask, as I have previously, that you bring matters to a point.”
“I think I shall be able to do that very shortly now.”
“I shall be glad to be relieved of this anxiety. Whatever your conclusions may be.”
With Worsdyke’s address in his pocket Carolus drove down to Eastbourne. He thought as he passed the colonies of new pink houses, the tidy petrol-stations, the plate-glass shop windows of the village stores, the bright little gardens in which forsythia and aubretia seemed invariable, the tricked-up inns and the highly clipped hedges, how Sussex, perhaps above all counties in England, had degenerated in the past fifty years. Could a modern Belloc sing now of the downs and inns, the ale and songs of this smug and trim region, with its State-organized life and its complacent, orderly people? ‘Clean of officious fence or hedge’, wrote Kipling of the Sussex downs in 1902, and said, ‘none more fair than she’. Oh, well, that was more than half a century ago and no doubt the downs with their fences, and the villages with their television aerials, and the magnificent road surfaces with their neat white lines, and the endless strings of cars, and the noise, and the people one meets all shew great progress since then.
He found Eastbourne the very hub and centre of this smugness, the new red town beaming with self-satisfaction. But he did not expect self-satisfaction from Worsdyke or his wife, on whom he intended to call first.
They lived in a semi-detached villa in a long street of identical ones, and as Carolus knocked at a numbered door a canvasser was knocking at the one beside it, standing not two feet away from him. The Worsdykes’ door was opened by woman whom Carolus correctly took to be Mrs. Worsdyke; she had a pleasant, intelligent face and listened patiently while he explained himself.
“Mrs. Worsdyke, I would be very glad if I could have a few minutes’ chat with you. I have your address from Lord Penge, who knows I am calling on you this morning.”
“What’s it about?” asked Mrs. Worsdyke calmly. Carolus recognized in her that splendid English phenomenon—a sensible woman. Sussex might have become an ugly and conventional place, its life grown old and regimented, but thank heaven it could still throw up this kind of human being, wise, tolerant, imperturbable and honest. There was no fuss or fear in her question; she simply wanted to know whether he was a salesman, a pressman, a policeman or an employee of Penge’s before deciding how to deal with him. In these circumstances Carolus knew that he should be direct and frank.
“Lord Penge’s secretary was murdered a week ago tomorrow. I am not a policeman, but I am investigating the matter. I think you could help me with some information.”
“I don’t really see how I can, but still you come in and I’ll try, if there’s anything I can tell you.”
Carolus found himself in a pleasant and lived-in front room, not one of those chill mausoleums behind lace curtains which no one ever seems to visit, but a cheerful place with two comfortable chairs, one of which he took.
“May I go right ahead, Mrs. Worsdyke? It concerns your husband, and may be painful to you.”
“Oh no. All that’s past with Harry, if you mean anything about his trouble. He’s as sane as I am now, thank God, and the doctors say we’ve nothing to worry about.”
“That’s good. You won’t mind if I ask a few questions?”
“When his little trouble first came did it in any way centre on Lord Penge? I ask because I have been told something of the sort at Highcastle.”
“Not at all. What Harry had was a sort of religious mania. It was his upbringing, I believe. His parents were horribly strict Chapel, and as a boy he was given hell-fire and damnation and all that. He has told me very often he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of flames and Satan. Then he grew up and went in the Army and lived like other men and forgot all about it, but I suppose it was there still, underneath it all. Then suddenly it began to come out.”
“I see. He bears no resentment towards Lord Penge at all?”
“Not a bit. In fact we’re both quite grateful to him. He behaved very decently about Harry, and helped with expenses at first. Harry always speaks well of him.”
“I don’t think I need ask you the other questions, Mrs. Worsdyke.”
“Ask them if you want to. I shan’t mind.”
“Well, for some two months someone has been writing anonymous letters to Lord Penge. Don’t suppose that I have any reason to suspect your husband of this, but I should like to satisfy myself and those concerned that he couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with it. You see, there is the fact, which is probably just a coincidence, that he came out of the mental home a week or two before they began.”
“I’m quite sure it couldn’t be Harry. First of all, he’s never had secrets from me, even when his trouble was worst. Secondly, he’s absolutely sane and sensible now and wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. Then again, he’d have no opportunity, because he’s the slowest letter-writer you ever saw, and he comes straight home from his job every day. He is a conductor on the buses now, you see. I just know it’s not Harry.”
“And you convince me, Mrs. Worsdyke.”
“You can meet him yourself, if you like. You’d know at once it couldn’t be him.”
“I don’t honestly think I need to. It may be conceited of me to think I’m so clever, Mrs. Worsdyke, but I trust my instincts. I know you believe what you say. But your husband hasn’t, by any unlucky chance, been over at Highcastle since he’s been back with you with you, has he?”
“Yes, we were over there last Wednesday. It’s my home, you see. I met Harry when he was working at the Manor. My father’s retired now but he used to be the baker in the village. Of course after Harry had come back they all wanted to see him.”
“So Wednesday’s his free day, and we went over on the bus, and caught the last bus home at eight o’clock.”
“You were together for the time?”
“Every bit of it.”
“Thanks very much, Mrs. Worsdyke. There’s nothing else I want to ask.”
“You know who killed Mr. Ratchett, do you?” asked Mrs. Worsdyke, in her turn shewing some curiosity.
“Yes. I can tell Lord Penge as soon as I return to Highcastle.”
How pleasant it was to hear no repetitions, no last-minute irrelevancies, no nonsense of any kind. Mrs. Worsdyke answered his questions, asked only one herself, kept to the point and left it at that. Carolus could scarcely restrain himself from congratulating her on being a sensible woman.
It was far otherwise with his other visit in Eastbourne. He had expected to find Dr. Boncourt a prosperous, perhaps somewhat pretentious practitioner with a large house and expensive motor-car. He found a dingy little grey villa with an unpolished name-plate. The door was opened by a scrawny woman with dyed red hair who spoke hurriedly.
“You can’t see the doctor till after two. He won’t be back from his rounds till one, then he’s got to have his lunch. I’ve got it on now and must run.”
“Thank you. I’ll come back.”
“All right, said the woman, closing the door in Carolus’s face in her frantic haste to return to her cooking.
Carolus ate a rather dismal hotel lunch, then returned to the villa to find it impregnated with the smell of food. The doctor, it seemed, had eaten something with fried onion, while a boiled cabbage had been served with it. Carolus was shewn into a little room with chairs covered in a material that could scarcely be called imitation leather. The place was like a railway waiting-room.
Dr. Boncourt entered. He was as dim and dingy as his home. He wore a suit that needed the attention of a dry cleaner and a shirt and collar that he had kept on one day at least two long. He had a hopeless little moustache and was still masticating.
“Yes?” he sighed, looking warily at Carolus through his spectacles.
“I am investigating a murder,” said Carolus rather sharply.
Dr. Boncourt did not react in the least dramatically.
“Oh yes,” he said as though he heard the words every day.
“Six days ago,” said Carolus, trying to give some weight to the matter, “a man named Ratchett was shot in the back in the park of Highcastle Manor.”
“Oh yes,” repeated the doctor.
“There are several suspects, including a patient of yours. Or rather the husband of a patient of yours.”
“Mm,” said Dr. Boncourt, unmoved.
“This man had been up to the house two days earlier, and went up again two hours before Ratchett was shot.”
“Ah.” There was no curiosity in the sound.”
“He gives as his reason for this,” said Carolus, bashing on regardless, “that he wished to see Ratchett on a matter concerned with his wife, your patient, who had recently died.”
“They do,” said the doctor, still not shewing in any sign of awakening interest.
“The man says you signed the death certificate, attributing the woman’s death to respiratory paralysis due to botulism.”
“I expect I did.”
“I should have thought you might have remembered it. Botulism, I understand, is an extremely rare disease. You don’t recall the case?”
“No,” said Dr. Boncourt. Carolus expected into yawn at any moment.
“Perhaps you have some record of it.”
“It is rather an urgent matter. If this man Tramper . . .”
The doctor leapt to his feet as if a violent electric shock had been administered to him.
“What name did you say?”
All his lethargy had gone. He stared at Carolus.
“Why didn’t you say so before?”
“You do remember? You can give me the details?”
“Of course I can! Seventeen pounds eighteen shillings and sixpence. That includes the anti-toxin. The dishonest brute! You will realize he deliberately bilked a doctor. A doctor, mind you. Remember the case? I should think I do. Where is he living now? Came to me as a private patient. He wasn’t on anyone’s panel, I understood. Can you give me his address? Disappeared from here in the night. Seventeen pounds eighteen shillings and sixpence. I shall put my collecting agency on to him. How dare a man go off like that owing money to a doctor? Do you know him? How can I get hold of him? It isn’t as though it was a trifle. That’s a considerable sum.”
“I am anxious to know certain details about the woman’s case. Where you able to diagnose at once?”
“Yes. Yes. I went to a great deal of trouble. Got her into hospital. That’s the gratitude the man shewed. I went round to his rooms and found him gone. Done a moonlight.Let no word of where he was going.”
“There never was any doubt that your diagnosis was correct?”
“None. Botulism. He had the bill all right, because I gave it to him myself. I know that kind of man. I wasn’t a doctor in the prison service for nothing.”
“And this type of poison could not be an administered by another person? A drug that had the same effect?”
“No, no. Clostridium botulinum. You don’t think I can afford to lose money like that, do you?”
“And is it true that his wife died?”
“Died? Of course she did. He must have had the money to pay. They lived in quite a decent house. I shall start proceedings. Where did you say he was?”
“Why ‘of course’, doctor? Are the effects of botulism always fatal?”
“Nearly always. I knew there was something wrong about that fellow. I ought to have asked for my fees in advance. Scandalous thing to do to a professional man. When I was a prison doctor at least I never had scoundrels of that sort.”
“Was there nothing remarkable about Mrs. Tramper’s death?”
“Nothing. Died in the Gladstone Hospital. The man came to see me next day and promised that my account should be settled immediately. I should never have left him leave the house without paying.”
“To what did you attribute of botulism? What had she eaten which could have caused it?”
“I’ve no idea. She had it, that’s all. Now I come to think of it, he offered me a post-dated cheque, but I wouldn’t take it. I don’t suppose it would have been met, anyway.”
“Did you make no report on the matter so that other food from the same source should be examined?”
“Of course I did. It was all gone into. It just shews what comes of trusting people like that. You could tell he was dishonest.”
“You see, Dr. Boncourt, this man has been attempting to obtain money from Lord Penge on the grounds that his wife died through eating one of the products turned out by Lord Penge’s firm.”
“Has he got it? Has he been paid? I might be able to have my account collected.”
“He has not got it and is not likely to. There is no evidence, it appears, that his wife’s death was in any way due to a product of Archer and Buck, and even if there were it would not be a matter for private negotiation.”
“Then you see no prospect of my recovering my fees?”
“Very little. Tramper received some money last Saturday from the sale of his wife’s effects, but I should think most of it would be spent already.”
“Disgraceful! I . . .”
At least, Dr. Boncourt, you can confirm that this man Tramper had a wife who died of food poisoning and that’s one of the things she had eaten during the last twenty-four hours of her life was tinned food manufactured by Archer and Buck?”
“I don’t know what she had eaten. The man gave the name of the product to be health authorities, and that was the firm he mentioned. But he was evidently such a deceitful fellow that it is impossible to trust his word. A man who will go off owing money to his doctor will do anything.”
“Even, perhaps, poison his wife?”
“Oh, certainly. But in this case he had not done so. There was a post-mortem. Evidence was found. No question. Now what did you say his address was? The Duke of Suffolk Hotel, Highcastle. Thank you. I shall take immediate steps. Perhaps I had better serve a summons? Of course his living in a hotel is highly unsatisfactory. Increases the difficulties. Upon upon my soul I wish I had never left Wormtonville. At least there the patients couldn’t run away without paying. Yes, that’s your way out. Good afternoon.”
Driving back to Highcastle, Carolus stopped his car beside a country letter-box. He took out of his pocket an addressed envelope, pulled out the contents, added a few words in pencil, sealed the envelope and posted it. The last loose end was tied up. It was time to act.