A Louse for the Hangman
Mr. Gorringer was waiting for him in the hall. It was evident that the headmaster felt it incumbent upon him to act as a kind of chairman or entrepreneur.
“Remembering the last occasion on which you delivered yourself in this way, my dear Deene, I have persuaded the Detective Inspector in charge of the case to take certain precautions. You will remember that at the time I refer to an attempt was made on your life. Detective Inspector Scudd—a very civil and competent officer I, I imagine—was not willing at first to take my representations very seriously, but wiser counsels have prevailed. There will be a plain-clothes man stationed at the door of the library and one at the french windows. You need fear no violence or attempt to escape.”
“Mind you, if, as you say, you intend to name the person responsible for the death of Lord Penge . . .”
“I said largely responsible. I did not say that his murderer would be present.”
“Ah, but you did not deny it, Deene. I have become accustomed to the evasive language you employ until the moment of revelation. If, as I say, I find myself in a room with a person even partially responsible for my old friend’s death, I cannot be answerable for my own actions. However, your audience awaits you. We are eager for the truth.”
Carolus found that the library had been arranged as a small auditorium. The desk at which Lord Penge had been wont to sit had been turned to face the room and cleared for Carolus. Seats had then been put in rows to accommodate the score or more of people present.
The family occupied the front row—the orchestra stalls, as it were. Gorringer joined Lady Penge here, and Eustace sat on the other side. Dr. Chilham was beside Hermione, and Lockyer with Ronald.
Carolus looked carefully over the anxious faces turned towards him. He saw that even those whose attendance had seemed most problematic were here, and for the first time saw Worsdyke with his sensible wife. Worsdyke himself looked a sensible man, composed and serious. Tramper was next to them, rather puffy and comatose, as though he had too much to drink at mid-day. He had returned to Highcastle that morning, as Carolus had predicted he would.
“Carolus checked carefully, then asked, “Where is Wilpey?”
It was Chilham who answered:
“I thought it desirable to live someone in the hall, sir, in case of calls. As Wilpey seemed to have no connection with the matter has selected him.”
“I should like him here,” said Carolus firmly.
One of the German girls went out and returned with an embarrassed-looking Wilpey, who took a place at the back of the room.
Carolus was pleased to see Scudd with a young assistant.
He began to talk quietly but clearly, as though he were addressing one of his classes at school.
“I came to this case unwillingly,” he said, “refusing to be involved in it when it seemed merely a matter of threats and agreeing only when there was a murder to investigate. That they may seem wrong to some of you, and I think I should explain it. All I had to offer in this or any other mystery is a lucky facility for discovering the identity of a murderer when this is puzzling to others. I would not presume to do something which the police can do far better than I. I make no apology for considering criminal investigation a hobby, though in this case it has been a sad one. I came here in order to find out who had killed Michael Ratchett and with no other purpose in view at all. I told that plainly to Lord Penge and to his eldest son.
“As soon as I began to investigate the circumstances of Ratchett’s death and the anonymous letters which had preceded it, I became aware of something which always seems to me highly suspicious. There was a kind of compulsion here to give the thing is certain specific explanation. I was being persuaded—coerced almost—into accepting a particular view and instinctively distrusted it. Lord Penge had received anonymous letters threatening his life. They had become more and more insistent and urgent, till one had been posted in the village containing the threat of imminent action. Then Ratchett at a time and in circumstances in which he could be easily mistaken for Lord Penge was shot dead. The implication was that the murderer had made a mistake and shot the wrong man.
“I began to play with an interesting supposition, rejecting for the moment the theory I was clearly intended to accept and which others accepted without question. Suppose, I said, the murderer did nothing of the sort. Suppose he intended to shoot Ratchett. Suppose he was someone who had a motive for killing Ratchett but none for killing Lord Penge. Suppose he believed that murderers were always identified (as they most often are) by motive. Suppose, therefore, he committed his crime in a way that would look like a mistake. Who would suspect him? If he was someone who in no circumstances would harm Lord Penge but whose motive for killing Ratchett was known or could easily be discovered, it would be an ingenious way of averting suspicion from himself.
“As soon as this idea had formed I saw how well it accorded with the circumstances of the murder. These, to say the least of it, left a lot of room for enquiry. Ratchett was shot in the back, presumably as he went towards his cottage to fetch something for Lord Penge. The murderer was supposed (and I thought and still think rightly supposed) to have stood beside a certain tree. All evidence agrees that it was an unusually dark night, but according to Lord Penge’s calculation Ratchett left about lighting-up time. Now how could a murderer concealed behind a tree mistake the identity of a man who had just passed within six yards of him? And if it was so dark that he could mistake his identity, how could he, a moment later, have seen well enough to shoot him dead at fifteen yards? It was a gross and insuperable inconsistency. I decided provisionally that whoever had shot Michael Ratchett had intended to shoot him and no one else. The anonymous letters and all the rest of it were an elaborate blind to deceive us into thinking that he intended to shoot Lord Penge and had shot Ratchett by mistake.
“At this point the case began to interest me, because I was up against a murderer with a good deal of ingenuity. At first it seemed that all I had to do was to identify him and the case was over. He had fulfilled his purpose and therefore was no longer dangerous. But I began to suppose again. Suppose he saw that I suspected the truth. Suppose he saw that the anonymous letters were not enough to convince me or others that he had shot the wrong man. Suppose he felt himself in danger of discovery. What else could he do to make his deception more convincing? Obviously only one thing—actually murder Lord Penge. That at least would shew that the first murder had been a mistake. That, if nothing else, would deflect all suspicion from him of his deliberately shooting Ratchett.
“I was not sure that this would occur to him, or that if it did he would follow the course of action I have suggested. But there seemed to me sufficient probability of it to constitute a threat to Lord Penge. So until I could identify the man—or woman, I’m only saying ‘he’ for convenience sake—I did not advise anyone that the murderer had shot his bolt and would not strike again.
“You will observe that my theory did not minimize the importance of the anonymous letters. Though they were not what they seem, they were still a part of the scheme to murder Ratchett and had presumably been sent by or for the murderer. But I did not think this likely to be a fruitful line of investigation. Whoever had sent them would have taken ordinary precautions, typing them on a standard paper, using a standard typewriter and so on. They had been posted in London on the mid-week days and afterwards in Highcastle. Their wording suggested someone educated trying to sound like a maniac or a murderer, but could have been a natural form of expression. Anybody could in fact have been responsible for them.
“But when I came to the circumstances of the actual murder I found them more revealing. Ratchett had been brought to the house that afternoon by Eustace, so that his car would not be standing, as usual when he was there, on the gravel in front. He started work with Lord Penge at five, and after a couple of hours, as Lord Penge said, started off for his cottage to fetch a document needed, borrowing Lord Penge’s very noticeable overcoat and leaving by the french windows in the library. Some five minutes later—he could not be more accurate—Lord Penge heard two shots in the park, took a torch, hurried out and at a certain spot about halfway across the park found the body of Ratchett face downwards, his head in the direction of his cottage and his hands in his overcoat pockets.
“He had been killed at a range of about fifteen yards by a Savage 30•30 rifle of his own which was later found in a pond nearby. The most noteworthy thing about that was that the pond was between the place of the murder and the house, suggesting rather forcibly that the murderer had returned to the house after firing and not made for the road. He would have been in a hurry and would not wait to go twenty-five yards out of his way to throw the rifle in a pond from which it would be recovered anyway. This rifle had been taken from Ratchett’s cottage, where it was usually kept unlocked.
“So far, but for the lack of motive, it could have been any single one of you. None of your alibis was worth a light. If we go back and suppose that was still just possible that Ratchett was shot in mistake for Lord Penge, there were a good many of you with something that could have been a motive. So I considered each one of you in turn.
“Eustace, for instance, told his sister towards seven o’clock that he was going out to the stables, but, as Spotter told me, he did not arrive . . .”
Spotter was on his feet.
“No, I never said nothing of the sort, or if I did it wasn’t nothing Mr. Eustace wouldn’t have not minded. No one ought to go not keeping quiet about anything said, and I wouldn’t not want Mr. Eustace to think I wouldn’t say nothing if it . . .”
“You’ve nothing to worry about, Spotter. Eustace told me himself afterwards that he did not go to the stables but was with Lockyer in the park looking for Ronald. But, as you see, he had no alibi, nor had Lockyer.
“Hermione’s alibi was Chilham, and Chilham’s Hermione. According to Chilham he was asked by Hermione to bring drinks for her and Eustace to the morning-room and did so. He found her alone and stayed chatting for ‘about a quarter of an hour’, during which time Mrs. Murdoe, with whom he had been playing bezique, was left alone. Any of those three, therefore, could have done it so far as their actual physical presence was concerned.
“Then, again, Gribbley’s alibi was provided only by Piggott’s, and Piggott’s only by Gribbley. They were in the Gribbley’s flat at about seven-thirty when Lord Penge ’phoned, but there was nothing but their own words to shew where they had been till then.
“It might, as I say, have been any one of you, even Lord Penge himself or Lady Penge . . .”
There was a mighty rumbling as Mr. Gorringer cleared his throat.
“Let us, my dear Deene, not enter the realms of fantasy,” he said.
“It could,” continued Carolus, “have been Ronald, who was in the park at the time. It could have been Spotter, who claims to have been in the stables but has no witness to his presence there. Then, by what you may wish to think was an unfortunate coincidence, Worsdyke and Mrs. Worsdyke were in Highcastle that day. Tramper had been up to the house an hour earlier. There was no reason to suppose that Dr. Chilham was over here, but for all I know he could have been. Wilpey the valet, claims to have been ironing trousers in the presence of Frieda, but again the alibis are only mutual. Mrs Carker and Mrs. Spotter have no witnesses to shew that they were alone in their cottages . . .”
“Oh, haven’t they?” asked Mrs. Spotter belligerently. “I’d like to know who told you that. It doesn’t mean because Spotter wasn’t there no one else was, so don’t be too sure of yourself, Mr. Know-All.”
“Who was?” shouted Spotter furiously. “Who was there with you? I knew it! I’ve never not known what you weren’t up to, nor not doubted it, not for a minute, I haven’t. Who was it?”
Mr. Gorringer turned to them.
“This is no place for your discussion,” he said. “Pray postpone it till a more appropriate moment.”
“Not if you wasn’t . . .”
“Silence!” shouted Mr. Gorringer, and Spotter subsided muttering.
“So you see,” continued Carolus, “with nothing like good old-fashioned clues, or think footprints, or fingerprints to help me, I was driven to the only way left to discover Ratchett’s murderer. I had to find a motive. At this time I almost lost faith in my theory, so impossible did it seem that anyone should have a motive for killing Ratchett. But I set about finding out what I could about him. In this Mrs. Carter was very helpful.”
“She would be,” Mrs. Spotter was heard to say bitterly.
“From Mrs. Carker, from Lord Penge, from Chilham, from Wilpey and from my own observation I learned a great deal about the murdered man. Lord Penge told me that six months ago he made over five thousand pounds to Ratchett to avoid death duties. Ratchett had been with Lord Penge for twelve years, since he came out of the army. He did not seem to have been a very inspiring individual, for his death left no apparent gap in the life here. Only Piggott and Lord Penge were mentioned as calling on him from time to time, and with Piggott, said Mrs. Carter, he was ‘very thick’. I learned later that he had made a Will in Piggott’s favour. Lord Penge told me that Ratchett was the son of his firm’s agent in Buenos Aires and that when he, Penge, had been out there as a young man, Ratchett had been too young to appear with his family at night.
“Then I heard for Mrs. Carker that about a year ago Ratchett’s mother died in Buenos Aires and that her property had been sent home to the son. There were a great number of documents which Ratchett went through, but none of them was left in his cottage. This at once caught my attention, because when a man so careless with his guns and other possessions that he does not even lock them up removes certain papers altogether, it suggests that they are of considerable value or importance to him. When I discovered later that he had a private account with a bank in Bexhill and obtained the information that he had a strong-box there, it didn’t need much guesswork to know where these papers were. I have been able to examine them, and will refer to them later.
“Then I learnt from Wilpey, who obtained information from Frieda, who had overheard talk between Lord and Lady Penge, that Ratchett had been some type of a bone of contention between them.
“All this was interesting, but it still did not do much to narrow the field. Then I realized that I had two really vital pieces of information which took me a long way towards identifying the murderer. The first had come from Mrs. Carker. It was that at about seven, or shortly after, someone had hurried into Ratchett’s cottage and hurried out again. Mrs. Carker had supposed at the time it was Ratchett, but when she knew how he had been shot with his own gun she decided that it was the murderer, who would come to steal it. The last notion seemed to me most unlikely. A man who has come for a gun with which to kill another does not bang in and out of his cottage switching on the lot, nor caring who sees or hears him.
“The second thing came from Ronald. At the time fixed for Ratchett’s murder he was in the park, ‘about a hundred yards from the ponds’, when he saw Ratchett suddenly lit up by the light of a torch. Ratchett was walking towards his cottage with ‘his hands up like someone being held up at pistol point in a film’.
“These two pieces of information convinced me that the murder had not happened, as it had as had been supposed, while Ratchett was going over to his cottage, but when he was coming back. It was not done by someone who mistook him for Lord Penge, but by someone waiting for him with a torch who held him up, caused him to start walking back to the cottage and then shot him in cold blood.
“There was a third thing that I did not find out till later. Tramper, about whom I shall have something to say later, was trying to obtain money from Lord Penge through Ratchett on most improbable and improper grounds. At first, Tramper told me, Ratchett told him it was out of the question, but that was highly indicative to me. One way or another, though I had no proof yet, I was pretty sure who had shot Michael Ratchett.
“Now I think, if you don’t mind, I will break off for a few minutes and have a drink.”
There was an immediate outbreak of conversation. The family in the front row remained silent and rather tense, but behind them Mrs. Carker, an important figure for the moment, could be heard saying that she had thought to herself she might as well say all she knew and have done with it. Mrs. Spotter, on the other hand, loudly disputed her claim to have known anything at all. The police spoke together in low tones; they looked quite unruffled.
Mr. Gorringer crossed to Carolus.
“Lucid, so far, Deene,” he said, “but I think you should have made your revelation by now.”
“I have, virtually. Isn’t it obvious to you? All right—you shall hear in a few moments.”
Then he resumed:
“I knew these facts about the murderer of Ratchett,” he said. “One, that he had some very adequate motive, for the murder was premeditated. Two, that he had built up an elaborate situation which would make it appear that he was mistaking Ratchett for Penge. Three, that he was someone who had an opportunity to take Ratchett’s rifle. Four, that he knew how to use it—was, in fact, a fair shot. Five, that he knew Ratchett would be coming along the path at that moment. Six, that he would have an opportunity to arrange the corpse in a certain way after shooting, since when Ronald had seen Ratchett his hands were above his head, and the hands of the corpse were in his overcoat pockets. Moreover, if Ratchett had gone to the cottage to fetch something, as Lord Penge said, the murderer had had time to remove whatever it was from Ratchett’s person. Eight, that he knew Ratchett would be wearing Lord penge’s distinctive overcoat. Nine, quite obviously, that he was someone who could have been in the park, on the spot, at that moment. Ten, that he was someone with enough sang-froid not to have given himself away that evening or thereafter. Eleven, that he was someone who would never be suspected of wanting to kill Lord Penge, but someone who was afraid of being suspected of wanting to kill Ratchett. Twelve, that he had had the opportunity of typing and sending the anonymous letters. Thirteen, and most deadly, that he was someone with the determination, the callousness, the desperation and the black courage to commit the murder of this kind.
“You will all see at once that there was only one person in existence to whom all those could apply. It was Lord Penge himself.”