A Louse for the Hangman
Even before he saw Highcastle Manor, Carolus was conscious that the whole case and his own conduct abounded in false pretences. He was going down to investigate a murder, and Lord Penge supposed that he was coming to prevent one. The character of Penge and his achievements, if they were not false, were certainly pretentious, and from all accounts his home was a nightmare of skilled restoration by experts in period decoration—the kind of thing that Carolus most detested.
The lodge gates were unlocked for him by a man who scrutinized him and his car carefully but asked no question. When Carolus saw the house and gardens his worst fears were realized. The house was quite perfect, not a brick or a mullion out of keeping, not a doorway or a chimney-stack but proclaimed that it was the work of Vanbrugh, a smaller but no less perfectly proportioned Blenheim. It even had the two-storey columns in a similarly imposing entrance. But, as Ruskin said, “Restoration is a lie.”
At each side of the house were twin formal Italian gardens in which the very flowers were in period, but from the entrance itself one looked across the park and saw that it had been skilfully treated to appear to reach the skyline. The trees were so ‘placed’ as the park rolled back that they can only have been the single ones and groups carefully selected and left growing when those surrounding them had been cut down.
Yes, everything was perfect, everything appeared to be ‘right’ and in harmony with the rest, and the resulting impression to one viewing the place in the mid-twentieth century was something unspeakably false, even a little ridiculous. This superb building, superbly set, was so anomalous, so anachronistic, that its beauty could scarcely be seen. It was like a lovely woman made for throne or stage or ballroom being jostled and swayed she was strap-hanging in an underground train.
Before he rang at the door, Carolus knew that the interior would continue the theme. But he did not expect the sight which confronted him. A footman in livery opened the door within a few moments of his ring and behaved as though his antique appearance was a commonplace, as though Carolus were somewhat gauche and ignorant to look at him with a little unconcealable surprise.
“His Lordship ordered that you should be shewn into him at once, sir. He is in the library.”
Carolus had time to look about him as they went, at the all-too-perfect furniture, the quite genuine armour and the magnificent tapestries. This was not a home, he decided, it was a film-set designed for an over-conscientious director. It was hideously right. Each item had been a matter for debate between experts. It was stamped with studied period and design.
Lord Penge himself was far less out of keeping with his home than one would have supposed from his story. He was not a big man, purple and blustering, he was not in manner arrogant or vulgar. He was of medium height with an open, rather intelligent face, a clipped moustache and a good forehead. His figure was spare and his movements decisive. His clothes were well made but not conspicuous, his presence that—perhaps—of a science master at a public school, a permanent official in the Home Office, or even possibly a solicitor who specialized in conveyancing.
“I am very glad you’re able to come,” he said quietly. “It’s a wretched business, and I feel I need help from an expert.”
That, Carolus considered, was what this man had always had, and it might be the secret of his success. Working with a chemist he had made his discoveries in preserving food, and one did not have to look much at his home to realize that he had known, in restoring and furnishing it, as perhaps in everything else in life, when to rely on the specialist.
“The police are now thoroughly concerned and working hard to clear up the mystery, but until poor Ratchett was killed they didn’t seem very worried. I cannot help feeling that if they had shewn the same energy a little earlier the thing might never have happened. However, to be fair, we were not so very worried ourselves.”
“How did it happen?” Carolus asked.
“I have every intention of telling you,” said Lord Penge. “Gorringer, who has moments of shrewdness in spite of his pomposity, believes that you are the one man who can clear this up. So let me give what details I can. I will start with these anonymous letters. The police have them now, so I cannot shew them to you, but I gather not much is to be learnt from the actual documents. The first came about a month ago. It was typewritten, with one or two slight typing errors, but was not misspelt or ungrammatical.”
“On what day of the week did it arrive?”
Lord Penge looked at Carolus as though to see whether he were serious.
“Is that important? I don’t remember the day, but it was in the middle of the week. Not a Saturday, Sunday or Monday. It had been posted in the London W.1 postal district. It was on paper which the police say is sold at every branch of one of the great chain stationers. The typewriter used was a common type, a Hemington portable of an old model.”
“And the words?”
“I have not a copy, but something like this. ‘To Lord Penge. You’ve had it. You know why. I am going to kill you myself. Spider.’ I think that is exact.”
“Will you try to tell me what were your reactions to this and what steps you took?”
“Certainly. I was not very concerned. I have received anonymous letters before and have learned not to take them too seriously. But I was curious. I think the words ‘you know why’ caused that. Because, you see, I did not know why. I could not think why anyone should want to kill me. It was the most perplexing part of the affair. I have no enemies, of that kind, anyway. Business rivals, persons with fancied grievances; we all have those, I expect. But to my knowledge there was no one with any reason to wish for my death.”
“Who will benefit from it financially?” asked Carolus.
“My Will, you mean? My own family and dependents. No one else. My wife. My two sons. Certain of the servants.”
“What about your secretary?”
“Michael Ratchett? No. On the contrary. He had been with me for twelve years, since he came out of the party, and was a personal friend as well as a secretary. About six months ago I began to put into action a scheme advocated by my accountants to avoid the payment of excessive death duties by my heirs. I made a gift of capital to Michael of five thousand pounds. If I die within five years of that, death duties will be payable. If not the sum belongs entirely to him—or rather to his estate. It was my intention to do the same for my wife and sons, on a rather larger scale. But it takes time to make the capital disposable in each case. I started with Michael because his was the smallest. Now to return to these letters. There were altogether three of them posted in London, and all were identical in note-paper, envelope and, the police informed me, type. The words were similar, with the addition of phrases like—‘Don’t think I have forgotten because I have been delayed’, ‘It won’t be long now’, and so on.”
“What did you do about them?”
“Shewed them to the police. That is, after receiving the second one. They began to seem rather more dangerous to me because they were probably the work of a madman. No sane man who intended to murder me would surely give me notice of the fact beforehand. What object could he have in doing so? And no sane man who did not intend to murder me would send these letters.”
“No. But there are degrees of insanity. Some idiot might think it was funny. However, that does not seem to have been the explanation. Please go on.”
“When the third arrived I really felt I ought to take it seriously. My son even wanted me to hire a bodyguard, but that, I imagined, would be an awful nuisance and probably not very effective. I remembered Gorringer telling me about you and asked him to invite you to look into the case. Then the fourth letter arrived, posted here in the village. Of this I have a copy.”
Lord Penge crossed the room to a bureau, of which he unlocked a drawer. Carolus read the odd words on the paper handed to him. ‘Lord Penge. I have come for you now. Useless to skulk in your house; I am everywhere. Count your hours and say your prayers. You know why. Spider.’
“Incidentally, the words ‘you know why’ were repeated in each of the letters. This time I began to be really perturbed. I am not an easily frightened man, but there was something about these letters, suggesting the obsession of a madman, which could no longer be treated lightly. When I say I was perturbed I don’t want you to think it made any difference to our life here. We had not got to the point of visualising anyone hanging about trying to take a pot at me. This one arrived, by the way, on the Saturday morning.”
“I wonder whether the police have asked you to give them what details you can about the movements of members of your household on the previous day?”
“They certainly have not. I really don’t think you need consider the members of my household in connection with these letters. I’ve no wish to limit your enquiries in any way but there are limits of probability. If you want to know which of them could have posted a letter that day you must ask them, because, as it happened, I was out most of the day. It must have been six-thirty before I was home, so I know little or nothing of anyone’s movements.”
“You drive yourself, I suppose?”
“No. I cannot drive. For some reason I have never learnt, and Gribbley, my chauffeur, invariably takes me. At a rough guess I should imagine that almost everyone here could have posted a letter that day, but of course none of them did. It’s unthinkable, as you’ll see when you come to meet them.”
“I expect so. May we go straight to the day before yesterday, wasn’t it? When Ratchett was killed?”
“Certainly. He came here at about five o’clock. It chanced that my son met him in the village and drove him up, so he was without his own car here, which was unusual. He had one of the two lodges at the East entrance of the park, not beside the gates you would have come in by today. He was a bachelor and lived alone. Mrs. Carker, the head gardener’s wife, who lives in the other lodge across the drive from him, cleaned his house, and he had most of his meals here.
“On most days at about four or five he would come here to work with me on the book I am writing, though on occasions we have worked in his cottage. I go up to town three or four times a week, but I never stay more than an hour or so and am usually here at about three or four o’clock. So it was my habit to work with Michael after tea sometimes till eight o’clock, but usually till six-thirty or seven. Dinner is at eight-thirty. I detest the modern tendency to eat any in the early evening before one has digested lunch.
“On Wednesday Michael arrived at a little before five and we came into this room at once to work. My orders to the staff are that in no circumstances short of a matter of life and death are we to be disturbed here while we are working, so we usually get a good deal done in the short time we have. That day we were deep in it for a couple of hours when Michael realized that we should need a file which was over at his cottage. He kept a good deal of our material there because he often worked at night.
“ ‘It’s a pity I didn’t bring the car,’ he said, ‘but it won’t take me long to go across.’ As you see, there are french windows here, and he opened these to take the shortest way to his house. ‘My goodness, it’s dark early tonight,’ he said, ‘and cold too.’ There is a little cloakroom through that door and I had an old overcoat there which I slip on to take a turn in the garden sometimes. I offered it to Michael and he put it on. We were almost identical in build and height and it fitted him. He said something like ‘Shan’t be long’, and was gone.
“I need scarcely say that it never occurred to us that the writer of the anonymous letters might be at hand. It’s easy to say now that we should have considered that, but you see the man had not become a physical threat exactly. We had not got to the point of imagining a real murderer waiting behind a tree. But there was another thing which I see now should have occurred to me. For the sake of my health I have taken to having a walk before dinner at night and in recent weeks have often made this to Michael’s cottage, having a drink with him there and returning to dinner.
“I went on with my work. The police have asked me with great pertinacity how long it was before I heard the shots, but I find it extremely hard to say. Certainly not more than five minutes, perhaps much less.”
“How many shots?”
“What did you do?”
“For the first time that afternoon I thought of the threatening letter-writer. The possibility at once occurred to me that he had fired at Michael in mistake for me. In the ordinary way I should not have taken much notice of those two shots.”
“I know,” agreed Carolus. “People always suppose that a shot fired attracts instant attention from everyone in hearing distance. In the country people are often unconscious of having heard it. Even in town is often thought to be a lorry back-firing. I’m never surprised when shots are unnoticed.”
“But this time I at once connected it in my mind with our letters. I took a torch and went out, following the footpath which I always use to Ratchett’s cottage and which Michael himself used on the few occasions on which he went on foot. About halfway across—I will shew you the place tomorrow—I found his body. He was lying face downwards, his head in the direction he was following towards his home, and his hands in his overcoat pockets.”
“Yes. I scarcely realized the detail, but the police have since I assured me of it. I saw that he had been shot in the back. He was dead.”
Carolus did not mistake for callousness the calm of a man whose manner was probably at all times an unemotional one. On the contrary, he felt that Lord Penge was making an effort to conceal his feelings.
“So?” Carolus pressed.
“I left him there and hurried back to the house.”
“It did not occur to you to think that you might be in danger yourself?”
“Frankly, no. It was a great shock to find Michael like that and it was all that I was aware of. But I think if I had realized anything I would have been pretty confident that the murderer would not be hanging about there waiting to be arrested. He would have been out on the road by then.”
“I at once telephoned the police and sent two men to remain beside the corpse until the police arrived. The two men were the footman and my chauffeur.”
“Then, if you want to know, I gave myself a stiff whisky-and-soda. I was very, very shaken. But speaking of that, may I offer you a drink now?”
“Thank you. A whisky-and-soda.”
Lord Penge rang. This time the bell was answered by an older man, evidently the butler. Lord Penge instructed him to bring whisky and a siphon.
“Yes, My Lord. Detective Inspector Scudd is waiting to see you, My Lord.”
“Oh. How long has he been waiting?”
“Rather more than an hour. He was most insistent on seeing you immediately, but of course I would not allow that, My Lord. Shall I admit him?”
“Yes, do, Chilham.” When the butler had gone, Lord Penge turned to Carolus. “I suppose orders are orders, but in a case of this kind I think Chilham should have had the sense to interrupt us. It may be something urgent and important.”
Carolus said nothing, but moved his seat into a rather more obscure corner. He wished to observe the Detective Inspector in charge of the case.