A Louse for the Hangman
He felt as he entered the house a sense of oppression which was not new here, but more acute than during his first hours. The obstinate extravagance evident everywhere, the sombre beauty of the place and the knowledge that all its inhabitants, however they might conceal it, were in a state of nerves, made Carolus himself uneasy and dispirited. He went at once to his own room and sat down to smoke a cigarette and consider the problem before him.
He had not been there long before Wilpey, the valet, came in.
“I say, sir, I’ve been trying to get hold of you. I’ve got something right up your street.”
“It shouldn’t have been hard to find me,” said Carolus, who was not in the mood for ebullience.
“Oh, I don’t know. First you were out with Gribbley and Piggott. I obviously couldn’t come and talk to you there, could I? Especially when you hear what I’ve got to tell you. Then you lunched with the family. Then you had tea with Mrs. Murdoe and Chilham. I mean, you can hardly expect me to barge in, could you? As soon as you left them you went out. So I’ve rushed in here to catch you.”
“Well, what is it?”
“I say, sir, you sound awfully blah. I mean, this ought to be quite useful stuff. You see, Frieda and I—that’s one of the German girls—we’re . . . I mean, she and I . . . well . . .”
“You’re having an affair.”
“Well, if you put it like that. I mean, we haven’t slept together or anything, because she’s frightfully strict and everything. I might even marry her. I mean, I’d never thought of marriage actually, but Frieda, she’s absolutely . . . I mean, she’s . . . I mean . . .”
“Quite,” said Carolus. “What did you want to tell me?”
“Oh that. Yes. Well, Frieda heard something. It’s about two months ago now, just before the anonymous letters started. I mean, she’s not madly inquisitive or anything, but she couldn’t help hearing this because she was in Lady Penge’s bedroom when Lord Penge came into the sitting-room next-door and didn’t know she was there. They had the hell of a row.”
“Lord and Lady Penge. Frieda says she was quite frightened. It went on for hours.”
“Honestly, Wilpey, you mean well, but I don’t want to hear about domestic quarrels.”
“It’s not just that. I mean, everyone knows they don’t get on. It was the things they said to one another. Frieda’s English isn’t perfect, but she soon realized this was no ordinary set-to. She can’t remember it all, of course, and there were parts she didn’t hear, but I’ve got to tell but I’ve got her to tell me all the pieces she can remember, and I’ve written them down. They’re only bits and pieces, but I think you ought to hear them.”
Carolus automatically stretched out his hand for the paper Wilpey held.
“I think I better read them to you,” Wilpey said. “I mean, my writing is pretty dreadful. These are from Lady Penge.”
‘Why have you never told me? I have a right to know.’
‘It’s absolutely wicked, Arthur. If it wasn’t for the children . . .’
‘But I don’t want to depend on Ratchett.’
‘In that case I should have to leave you.’
‘It’s an unbearable situation.’
‘How dare you assume that.’
‘If I agree it will only be for the children’s sake.’
‘I hate and despise you, Arthur. Yes, despise.’
‘Ratchett! Don’t talk to me about Ratchett. He may be loyal to you, but . . .’
‘Sometimes I feel I could kill you, Arthur.’
“There. You can’t say that sounds much like an ordinary quarrel, can you?” ended Wilpey, with a touch of pride.
“I don’t know. Married people say all sorts of things to one another, as perhaps you’ll find out one day. What did your friend happened to overhear from Lord Penge?”
“Not nearly so much, I’m afraid. He wasn’t so excited, and he spoke quietly. But you may be able to make something of it.”
‘I did everything in my power, Alithia.’
‘They need be no consequences at all if you keep your head.’
‘Certainly not. Eustace is not affected.’
‘Of course I have arranged it. You know perfectly well I can.’
‘I tell you it was a hundred to one chance.’
‘You’re quite unreasonable. You’ll force me to . . .’
‘No. I shall do nothing of the sort.’
“That’s about all, though Frieda says he mentioned Ratchett, too. Is it interesting?”
“Good-o. I’m glad I’ve added something to your information. Are you getting anywhere, though? I mean, it’s a bit creepy in a house where one murder’s already been committed and another expected any minute.”
“Well, I mean, isn’t it? Expected, I mean? Now what about your clothes, sir? We don’t don’t dress on Sunday evening. Cold buffet.”
“I suppose I shall have to go down,” said Carolus. “I don’t feel as though I shall want to eat anything—ever again.”
“They do rather tuck in, don’t they? You’ll manage something when you get there. I make the cocktails tonight. Chilham’s off and Piggott has the table. We have some funny odd jobs, really. Piggott’s in charge of the gun-room for instance, and I do the post.”
“Yes. Haven’t you seen the little letter-box in the hall? Every day at six I take it down to Mr. Evans at the shop.”
“Just explain that, will you?”
“Well, Lord Penge is very particular about the post. Always has been. So what he does is to have this little letter-box which unhooks off the wall. It has a Yale lock, and only he and Mr. Evans have keys. Mr. Evans has the general shop and post office in the village. So I take the box and hand it to him in the grocery part of the shop and he unlocks it there, takes out the letters and puts them in the letter-box.”
“Because he can’t accept them like that as postmaster. Against the rules. So what he does, he takes them and posts them as a shopkeeper, then takes them out of the public letter-box and sorts them as a postmaster. The idea is that everyone here who posts a letter, family or staff, knows that no one can poke about or see who he’s writing to or anything. It’s quite a good idea, really. I mean, before I met Frieda I was writing to a girl I met in Southend, and I knew if that Piggott got to hear of it I should never hear the last of it, but I could pop my letters in there and feel quite happy about it.”
“Why? Oh, I believe I see. You’re thinking of that anonymous letter. You mean it could have been sent by one of us here in the house and no one would be able to tell. You know, sir, I think you’re set on putting everything down to someone in the house. I mean, you don’t think Mrs. Murdoe’s going to send death warnings, do you?”
“I only said it was interesting. But you’re right, of course. It means that the last anonymous letter could have been posted in the house.”
“Yes, I know what you were thinking. All I hope is you don’t suspect me. Well, I’ll go and do his Lordship. I hope you enjoy your cold buffet.”
That Carolus did not. Indeed, the superabundance and excellence of the food at Highcastle Manor were beginning to tell on him. Oyster patties, salmon mayonnaise, chicken in aspic, plovers’ eggs and a ham mousse seemed to him sufficient for any quite family supper, but when they were backed with filets of sole, dressed crab, a galantine, foie gras and half a dozen salads, the thing became excessive. A Chartreuse of strawberries, a chocolate gâteau, a mácedoine of fruits, a Neapolitan ice and a trifle could only be ascribed in that variety to greed. The family seemed to enjoy it, however, in a rather silent and serious way. All of them, that is, except Lockyer, who had gone home for the remainder of the week-end.
When Carolus was recovering from it with a cup of coffee, Eustace sought him out.
“You remember what I suggested the other day about testing the security of the house? I half wondered if that business last night and something to do with you, till I heard about the poison.”
“All the same, it doesn’t look as though our defences amount to much, does it? Someone was able to get into the park, come up to the house, open the library window, climb in, poison my father’s medicine, get out through the window drawing it down as far as he could behind him, look in at the morning-room and get away again.”
Carolus looked curiously at Eustace.
“Do you really believe that’s what happened?” he asked.
“What else? The window was open and the medicine poisoned.”
“And someone was seen at the morning-room window. But we really must use a little common-sense in these things.”
“You don’t believe it?”
“Put it this way. I don’t think there is any reason to think that the security arrangements made by the police against intrusion from outside are ineffective. However, if you really want me to test them, I will see what I can do.”
“Everyone seems to take it so casually!” complained Eustace.
“I don’t, I assure you. A man has been murdered —shot in the back. I certainly don’t take that casually.”
“I meant the danger to my father.”
“I don’t think your father is in any danger tonight, at any rate.”
“You don’t? I suppose that’s something. I’m worried sick about it, Mr. Deene.”
“And about something else, I believe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you been quite frank, do you think? With the police and me?”
“Of course I have. I’ve nothing to hide.”
“Looking here, what are you getting at?”
“I’ll tell you. It boils down to the old stock question. Where were you at the time of the murder?”
“I’ve told the police. I left my sister for a few minutes to go out to the stables.”
“Did you go to the stables?”
“Was Spotter there?”
“Was he? I can’t remember. I was worried about one of the horses.”
“Then I’ll tell you. He was there till eight o’clock, and you didn’t come out. Where were you?”
“What the hell does it matter? You don’t suspect me of trying to shoot my father, do you?”
“No. That I don’t.”
“I want to find out, beyond any doubt at all, who killed Michael Ratchett.”
“What am I to do with it?”
“You were in the park when he was killed.”
“If I was it had nothing to do with it. I was nowhere near the ponds.”
“I’m still anxious to know where you were when the shots were fired.”
“I didn’t notice the shots. But I must have been right over by the gravel-pit at the time.”
“What did you go there for?”
“I went with Lockyer. We will looking for young Ron.”
“I see. I can’t think why you haven’t explained that before.”
“I would have if it had been necessary, but there didn’t seem any point. I neither saw nor heard anything. It’s not very easy to tell anyone about our trouble with Ronald.”
“When did you return to the house?”
“I don’t know the time. Hermione was in the hall and told me what had happened. I had left Lockyer over there.”
“Thanks, anyway, for telling me all this now. Is there anything else you think I ought to know? No? Then I think I should I’ll say good night. I’ve got a pretty hard day tomorrow.”
Carolus slept badly, and was glad when the first light came into his room. He decided to get up as soon as he politely could and see this highly organized household beginning the day. It was barely eight o’clock when he reached the hall, but in it the big fire was blazing, doubtless on the embers of yesterday.
Carolus went out to find a glorious April morning. On his way to the garages he saw a little open truck being driven very fast up the drive and recognized Piggott at the wheel of it.
The ex-sailor pulled up and gave him a cheerful good morning. Carolus could see what Eustace had meant when he talked of supplies from the farm.
“Just got to take these to the back door,” said Piggott, “and I’ll be over at the garage. Grib’s there polishing your car.”
Carolus continued his way and found that Gribbley had given the Bentley Continental a brilliant polish.
“I should like it immediately after breakfast,” Carolus said.
“I’ll bring it round.”
Neither of them used the feminine pronoun for a car, Carolus because he disliked it and Gribbley because for him ‘she’ was a ship.
Carolus watched as Piggott drove his empty truck into the yard and skilfully backed it into its place in one of the garages. This was built for two cars only and stood well away from the rest of the buildings, out of sight of Gribbley’s flat.
“I ought to be the chauffeur,” Piggott said, grinning, “and Grib dress up as the footman.”
Immediately after breakfast Carolus set off in his car for Bexhill. He did not drive fast, but reached the ugly little town soon after ten and enquired for the Royal and Colonial bank. Without much difficulty he found it, a building as pretentious as most bank premises, a façade of bad marble, plate-glass and bronze fittings. He asked for the manager.
“Mr. Flinch is engaged,” said a young cashier. “What did you want to see him about?”
“What did I want to see him about? I do want to see him. How long will he be engaged?”
“I couldn’t say. Have you an account?”
“Perhaps you want to open one?”
“Perhaps I do. Apart from these speculations I want to see the manager on an urgent matter as soon as he is free.”
“I’ll tell him. But Mr. Flinch likes to know what it is in connection with before he sees anyone without an appointment.”
“Very natural. Tell him I come from Lord Penge.”
The cashier looked and behaved as though someone had come from behind him and kicked him suddenly and hard in the backside. He jerked upwards, fled through a door behind him, sped back again and said rather breathlessly, “He’ll see you now.”
Carolus found a round and shining man already on his feet. His bald head, his wrist watch, his links, his collar and cuffs, his glasses and his teeth all gleamed.
“Good morning. I understand you come from Lord Penge. What can I do for you?”
“Lord Penge has asked me to try to clear up the mystery about the death of one of your clients, Michael Ratchett.”
The name or the news seemed to deflate Mr. Flinch and he at once sat down with scarcely a wave of his hand towards a chair for Carolus. Was it an illusion or had the sun gone in? Carolus had the impression that the bank manager’s gleam had been switched off.
“Ratchett. Yes. He had an account with us. True.”
“A large account?”
“Look Mis-ter Rer, I can’t possibly discuss my client’s affairs with unauthorized persons.”
Carolus, like most of us, detested being called ‘Mis-ter Rer’ and spoke rather sharply.
“Of course you can’t. I don’t want you to. My question was a very general one.”
“Even so. It won’t do. Quite impossible I’m afraid. I understood that you had come to represent Lord Penge in some business matter.”
“You thought I had taken Ratchett’s place?”
“It was the natural assumption. I had hoped perhaps Lord Penge . . . However. Now, Mis-ter Rer, is there anything else I can do for you.”
“Yes,” said Carolus, who was not in an equable mood after several days of over-eating. “You can stop calling me Mis-ter Rer and at least tell me whether Ratchett had a strong box here?”
“What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. But it’s Deene.”
“Well Mis-ter Rer Deene . . .”
“God!” said Carolus.
“You put me in a difficult position. I scarcely know whether the information you require would be a breach of confidence for not. Perhaps, since you are authorized by Lord Penge, in all the circumstances I might go so far as to say that, yes, he did in fact have a strong-box here.”
Carolus dived into his pocket and, watching the manager closely, put on the table one of the keys Mrs. Carker had given him yesterday.
“Is this the key?” he asked.
Mr. Flinch examined it, but remained unexpectedly poker-faced.
“You go too far,” he said. “It would obviously be incorrect for me to identify or not identify the key of a strong-box belonging to a man recently murdered. The police, his executors, perhaps . . .”
“But that is his key, isn’t it?”
“Mis-ter Rer Deene, you force me to say that these inquiries are untimely and quite against customary usage.”
“I’m glad you know the customery usage in a murder case. I don’t, and I’ve been concerned with several. I will explain to Lord Penge what is in this case.”
Mr. French hesitated.
“If I were to tell you on your producing a key and claiming that it was that of a certain strong-box that it was in fact the key, or at least that it looked like, I trust you would not suggest that without the presence of the legal executives, the police and perhaps a Justice of the Piece we should do anything so flagrantly out of order as to think of opening the box, would you?”
“Certainly not. I just want to know if this is the key.”
“In that case, Mis-ter Rer Deene, with every reserve and between you and me, without prejudice and before no witnesses, I think I may go so far as to say that it looks as though it might be. ”
“Thanks. That’s all I wanted to know.”
“Ah.” The manager gleamed again. “Good day, Mr. Deene.”
“Good day, Mr. Rer,” said Carolus and escaped.