A Louse for the Hangman
Next day was Sunday, and Carolus noticed that it was Piggott who served the breakfast.
“I hope Chilham’s not ill,” he said to Eustace, who was beside him.
“Oh no. This is routine. Chilham has Sunday mornings free for an extra hour or two of sleep. He’s getting on, you know. Piggott usually drives over to the farm in the morning, but Gribbley does it on Sundays.”
“I didn’t know you had a farm.”
“Yes. It’s just for the house, really, and produces a good deal of what we need.”
Carolus did not say that its staff and acreage must be considerable.
“It’s entirely Father’s scheme. There’s a small open truck with which Piggott goes over at the crack of dawn and brings back the milk, butter, vegetables, eggs and what-not for the day. It means we always get fresh things.”
There were not many appearances at breakfast and Carolus was the last to leave the room. As he did so Piggott stopped him.
“Look, sir, could you come over to the garage presently? On your own, I mean. Gribbley and I want to tell you one or two things.”
“Certainly. In about an hour?”
“Fine. Would you mind not saying anything about it?”
Carolus nodded and went to the hall, where the usual big fire was burning. He felt justified in taking an hour off and sat down to do the Ximines crossword in the Observer. He would just have time to finish it, he thought.
He found Piggott waiting for him, and noticed how different from the correct footman the young man looked now that he wore a lounge suit.
“Would you come to Grib’s flat?” he asked. “It’s up those stairs.”
Gribbley welcomed them to a room as neat as the cabin of a ship. Everything polishable shone and there was little or nothing merely ornamental. Carolus remembered that the two had been in the Navy together, the chauffeur having been a Chief Petty Officer.
“I don’t know is what we’ve got to tell you,” said Gribbley. “But I think there ought to be something, and you’ll know what to ask.”
“We didn’t want to say anything to the police. Well, I don’t like policemen. Never have.”
“I don’t think they had much use for us, either. Scudd only kept us a fee minutes. Of course, each of us only has the other as an alibi. We were up here at the time having a drink before Piggott went down for the dinner. He had already drawn the curtains.”
“You heard the shots?” ask Carolus.
“Well, it sounds a bit daft, but neither of us can be quite sure about that. They certainly didn’t register at the time, but looking back I seem to remember them, and Piggott isn’t so sure. Not very satisfactory for you, I’m afraid.”
“You were in this room. Were any windows open?”
“There’s always one open.”
“What was the first you heard of the murder?”
“The telephone rang, and it was Lord Penge. He sounded pretty shaken—for him, I mean, because as you know he’s a very calm man. He told us that Mr. Ratchett had been shot and was lying on the footpath on the way to his cottage. We were to go straight there, touch nothing and see that no one else touched anything till the police arrived. We did that.”
“You found the body at once, of course?”
“Yes. With a torch. We followed the footpath.”
“Did you examine it?”
“Just made sure he was dead.”
“How was the body lying?”
“Flat on his face with his hands in his overcoat pockets.”
“You saw no one till the police came?”
“Even as you were walking over?”
“No one at all. But I heard someone. It was just after we reached the body. From a long way over on the west side of the park I heard Lockyer shouting for young Ron. Then he must have given it up, because I didn’t hear him again.”
“How long do you think you were there?”
“Too long, anyway,” said Piggott.
“It’s rather hard to say. It seemed an age at the time, but looking back I think the police were pretty quick. It may have been half to three-quarters of an hour.”
“How did you get on with Ratchett?” Carolus asked the question of Gribbley.
“I saw very little of him. He used to pay me every week, but he had his own car and looked after it himself. I had quite enough to do with the family cars. Piggott, here, knew him better.”
“Yes. I used to call at his cottage for a drink now and again. He had travelled a good deal, and once you got him talking was quite interesting about it. He lent me one of his guns to go rabbiting sometimes. He wasn’t a bad sort.”
“You like your job here, Piggott?”
“The money is good and I’ve got used to dressing up and that now. Can’t say I ever liked it, though.”
“You don’t get on with Wilpey, the valet, I believe.”
“He’s all right. A bit pansy. Talks too much; that’s his trouble. He’s having an affair with one of the German girls.”
“And the rest of the staff?”
“Well, Grib and I keep to ourselves, pretty much.”
“Do you ever go down to the Duke of Suffolk?”
“Now and again.”
“Know character staying there called Tramper?”
“Is that the slob with the red face? I don’t know him to speak to. Only seen him.”
“Did you ever see him anywhere round here?”
“Here? No. He wouldn’t have got near here. Since those anonymous letters started coming we’ve all had orders to look out for strangers and let no one into the house.”
“Oh. Is there any other information? Even if it’s no more than gossip it may be helpful.”
“Gossip? There’s bags of gossip. You know, of course, that the old man and the old lady never speak to one another?” Carolus noticed with some amusement that the last vestige of formal respect had left the manner and speech of the two men and they had become three individuals discussing the boss. “It’s been going on for years, that has.”
“I used to wonder why they didn’t separate,” continued Gribbley. “I think it’s the money. She’s supposed to be nearly as loaded with it as he is. They both love this place and the whole act, and neither could afford to keep it up alone. That’s my idea.”
“Row? If they do start you’ve never heard anything like it. The old man keeps cold, and she blazes away at him as though she’d got a Sten. Then they don’t speak again for six months.”
“I think a lot of her,” said Gribbley. “She’s an old sport. You’d think anyone built like that couldn’t hop about much, wouldn’t you? You should see her. And she drives that Jaguar of hers as nicely as you please.”
“She drives herself?”
“Doesn’t Lord Penge?”
“Never. The old man can’t drive.”
Carolus nodded and hoped more was to come.
“What other gossip can we tell him, Grib? You know about Chilham’s son and Hermione, don’t you? I thought you would. It’s gone round pretty well. Old Chilham’s just about breaking up over it.”
“There’s young Ron,” said Gribbley. “He’s supposed to be touched, but I don’t see it myself. He’s one of the best of them so far as I’m concerned. I often wonder whether all this about his trying to commit suicide isn’t just his own lark. To get his own way, I mean. I don’t like that Lockyer.”
“No, I don’t,” agreed Piggott. “Fancies himself.”
“Supposed to have been a boxer. If he ever was, he’d be useless now. All his muscle’s run to fat.”
“You say you distinctly heard him out in the park that evening?”
“And that would have been about a quarter of an hour after Lord Penge ’phoned you to go across?”
“Any more gossip?”
“There’s Mrs. Spotter.”
They both grinned.
“Don’t you know about Mrs. Spotter?”
“Only that she is a television enthusiast.”
“She’s a bag,” said Piggott rudely. “You ought to see her. Great, fat, lazy cow who can’t even bother to look after her kids properly. And poor little Spotter thinks the world of her. Jealous as he can be, is Spotter. Imagines everyone’s after that big slut.”
“You sound very feeling about it,” said Carolus.
“Well, he started on me once. As if I was interested in her. I told him I wouldn’t touch his old woman with a barge-pole. Hang me if that didn’t make it worse. He told me I wasn’t fit to work in the same place as she did. He was going to give me a good hiding, so he said. He’s only a little fellow. I told him he couldn’t have it both ways. If he wanted me not so much as to look at his old woman, he should be pleased I wouldn’t touch her with a barge-pole. He’s a decent little chap, but he’s crackers when it comes to her.”
“You said ‘work in the same place’. Does Mrs. Spotter work here?”
“She did then. It was before the Germans arrived. She was a housemaid. That’s how Spotter picked up with her. She’s a local girl, and he comes from London.”
“Why did she leave?”
“There are several stories. Some say that Mrs. Murdoe couldn’t bear her, but I don’t think that’s true, because she was here some years. Some think it was just laziness. But there is a story that Spotter made her hand in her cards because he was jealous.”
“Well, don’t take any notice of this, because it’s probably just a story, but they do say it was the old man. Mind you, it’s some years ago, and she wasn’t such a lousy cow as she is now.”
“Where do the Spotters live?”
“They’ve got the lodge at the West entrance, where you first came in. There’s only one lodge there instead of the two at the East gate. Before they were married, Spotter lived over the staples, but afterwards they moved out.”
“I think I shall go over to the stables and see if Spotter’s there now. I’d like a chat with him.”
“He should be.”
“Thank you both very much for all you’ve told me.”
“Only too glad. I hope you get the ——”
The stables were apart from the house and garages, discreetly among trees behind the West wing. There was the usual little clock-tower and the usual good smell of manure and horse-flesh.
Carolus found Spotter grooming a fine chestnut.
Here again was a very caricature of the traditional groom, a piece of ‘colour’ in the scheme of things so pronounced that at first it seemed impossible that it could be genuine. Sponsor might have been a character-actor playing the part of a groom in a country house in the 1890’s. Could a real groom be so short and trim and bandy? Could he whistle through his teeth as he groomed? Could he have a striped waistcoat and gaiters, short side-whiskers and a forelock which he touched as Carolus approached? Yet here it all was, as large as life and twice as unnatural.
He evidently thought that Carolus had come, as other guests had done, to arrange to go riding, and began to recommend the horsey was grooming.
“Thanks. I should like to. Perhaps tomorrow. It was something else I came to see you about.”
The friendliness and animation at once disappeared from Spotter’s face.
“What’s that, sir?”
“I’ve been asked by Lord Penge to try to discover the truth about this murder.”
“Oh, I don’t know nothing about that. Not that, I don’t know nothing about.”
“We don’t always know what we do know,” said Carolus, trying to keep up with Spotters verbal back-somersault.
“I do. I know what I know and what I don’t know, and what I know is that I don’t know nothing, not about no murders nor nothing, I don’t.”
“Where were you when the shots were fired?”
“I don’t know when the shots were fired, so how can I know where I was or where I wasn’t?”
“About seven o’clock?”
“I can’t remember nothing like that; nor can’t know what else, not as they don’t make it up, they can’t.”
Carolus wondered how to break down the sturdy defence by double, triple, quadruple negatives.
“Perhaps your wife would remember where you were.”
“No, she wouldn’t, nor wouldn’t say nothing even if she did, not if anyone was to offer her I don’t know what not. She doesn’t know, anyway. My wife’s nothing to do with it and doesn’t want to know nothing about it, not if you was to want to try to tell her, which I don’t suppose you would. She was over at the lodge at the time, not larking about nor anything of the sort. She was putting the children to bed, if you want to know.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because she told me so when I got in, or I wouldn’t have said nothing, would I?”
“When you got in? Then you were out at the time?”
“I haven’t said nothing of the sort, so it’s no good trying to make me say what I can’t, is it?”
“I wonder why you are so evasive.”
“Haven’t I had enough, what to say too much, with the police on at me not to hold back nothing and now you not leaving it alone?”
“I understand that Mr. Eustace paid a visit to the stables at about seven?”
“No, he didn’t do nothing of the sort.”
“You were here then?”
“When he didn’t come I was, but not all the evening I wasn’t. I can’t stay working for ever and leave the wife not knowing where I’ve got to. No, Mr. Eustace never came out here before dinner that evening, though I’m not saying him and Mr. Lockyer weren’t out in the park looking for young Ronald; not that they need to worry, because to my mind there’s nothing wrong with him and he wouldn’t do nothing anyone wouldn’t like, not if you was to pay him, he wouldn’t.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you there. I find him a very pleasant young man.”
“Not but what some of them wouldn’t like to make out he’s no better than them because he’s supposed not to care whether he lives or whether he doesn’t.”
“I have a feeling, Spotter, that there’s something about this whole business you know and keep to yourself.”
This drew a very cascade of mixed negatives from Spotter.
“No, there isn’t nothing of the sort, nor isn’t likely to be, neither. I wouldn’t hold back nothing from nobody unless it was none of their business, and there’s nothing for me to hold back because I’ve not seen nothing, nor heard of nothing neither.”
“No. Not a blind thing. I don’t mind no one else’s business for them nor yet not look after my own. It’s not as though I haven’t got no wife and kids to think of and not let starve, as I might not be able to stop if I didn’t know when not to interfere in what’s no business of mine.”
“Why did your wife stop working in the house?”
“That’s got nothing at all to do with nothing you’re concerned with. Not that she couldn’t have not given her notice when she did, only I didn’t want her not having her home with me and never knowing when she wouldn’t get a day off because it wasn’t convenient. Besides, I didn’t want to think nothing might happen I wouldn’t want to.”
“Never mind, but I didn’t like some things others had told me which needn’t have happened if she hadn’t been there.”
“That’s all there was to it. I never say what might not be the truth.”
“No. Not for nothing I don’t.”
Carolus absent-mindedly stroked the long nose of the horse Spotter was grooming, and the chestnut responded by an affectionate downward movement of the head.
“I’m not saying that’s not funny,” said Spotter, “because although old Cæsar’s never not friendly with anyone, no one’s known him take to no one in particular, not since we’ve had him. You had much to do with horses, sir?”
“Quite a bit,” said Carolus, who thought it wiser not to parade details. He had had ‘quite a bit to do with horses’, but he knew that as a bait to Spotter this would lose effect if he appeared proud of it. He continued to fondle Cæsar. He saw Spotter throwing wary side-glances at him.
“Not,” said Spotter at last, “that I never go so far as to say I’d not seen nothing that mightn’t be in your line.”
Carolus kept silent.
“I wouldn’t even say that it mightn’t have been on the day when Ratchett was shot.”
Cæsar’s caresses were growing fulsome, his head going up and against Carolus’s jacket.
“Nor that it wasn’t not a few minutes after them shots.”
“Which you heard?”
“I wouldn’t say nothing like that,” said Spotter cautiously, “but it can’t have been a minute or two, not more, after when young Ron comes tearing in here from the park, not knowing what he wasn’t doing, as you couldn’t help seeing from the way his eyes weren’t looking at nothing.”
That was vivid enough and Carolus nodded.
“ ‘Spotter!’ he says to me, ‘you’re never to say you’ve seen nothing of me, whatever else you don’t say,’ he says, and I wouldn’t never have done if I didn’t know it wouldn’t do him no harm. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I’ve seen something out there I don’t want to have seen, and you’ll know all about it presently. Only don’t tell them you’ve seen me, because I’m going up the back staircase to the schoolroom.’ I told him not one of them wouldn’t get nothing out of me, but I don’t reckon you’d do nothing to do the boy no harm, so there you are.”
“Thank you, Spotter. There’s nothing else?”
“Not if you wasn’t to stop asking me questions from now till tomorrow morning, neither me nor my wife. I don’t know nothing and she don’t neither, so it’s no use your not believing that. It’s not as though I haven’t told you all I don’t disremember. Not unless you want to know that not a week before the murder a nasty-looking, nosy, red-faced beggar in the public bar of the Duke of Suffolk was asking me a lot of questions one night. Someone had told him where I worked, and nothing wouldn’t satisfy him but coming and sitting next to me and not stopping wanting to know I don’t know what not about what time his Lordship was here and what time Ratchett was there.”
“Did you tell him?” asked Carolus.
“Not so much as wouldn’t cover a threepenny piece, I didn’t, and wouldn’t have done neither, not even if he hadn’t put me off by not so much as calling for no more than a half-pint. Not that I couldn’t buy my own, but not when anyone wants something and won’t take no for an answer.”
“No. He wouldn’t. And if there’s one thing I don’t like at no price, it’s anyone who won’t never take no for an answer, not if you give it them I don’t know how many times.”
“It is annoying. I’m most grateful to you, Spotter. You’ve told me several valuable things.”
Before he walked away Carolus tried to tip him.
“No,” said Spotter. “Not for that I wouldn’t take nothing.”
The whistling noise started again between his teeth.