Case for Three Detectives, Chapter Twelve

Case for Three Detectives

Stall came in deferentially and seemed embarrassed when he was told that he might sit down.  He had no sooner done so than Sergeant Beef rounded on him with deplorable crudeness.
’’Ere,” he almost shouted, “’ave you been blackmailing Mrs. Thurston?”
Stall stirred uneasily.  Surely even Beef could have expected only one answer to the question.  “Certainly not,” was all that the man wisely said.
“Well, it looks very much like it,” went on the insuppressible Beef.  “Very much like it.  She’s been drawing out big sums in small notes, and I don’t know who else could ’ave been on to ’er if it wasn’t you.  Why don’t you own up, now?”
Such crass methods evidently helped Stall to reassure himself.  His composure returned and he faced the Sergeant.  “I don’t think I need answer such a question,” he said.  “It’s ridiculous.”
“Oh no, it’s not,” Beef went on, while I could see that the three investigators, whose delicate wits were outraged by all this, had become impatient.  “Oh no, it’s not.  You’re one of the ’ypocritical sort, Mr.  Stall.  Sing in the choir, you do, instead of coming down to the local.  I’m more than ’arf convinced that you’ve been up to something in the blackmailing line.  Out with it now, what ’ave you done with that two ’undred quid you ’ad off of Mrs. Thurston?”
“If you’ve quite finished, Beef,” sighed Lord Simon.
“Oright, you ’ave a go at ’im.  You’ll see if I wasn’t right.”
There was evident relief when the Sergeant returned to his note-book, and Lord Simon, leaning back in his chair, began a more tactful sort of cross-examination.
“Of course you knew of Mrs. Thurston’s will, Stall?”
“Oh yes, my lord.”
“And what did you think about it?”
“Very gratifying, my lord, that Mrs. Thurston should have considered us in that way.  But not a matter to be taken very seriously.”
“And the other servants?”
“Very similar ideas, my lord.  If I may say so, domestic servants to-day are more highly educated than in former times, and not likely to be deceived by anything quite so ingenuous.”
“Really.  Yet ingenuous or not, the bally thing was there, wasn’t it?”
Stall shrugged.  “I had scarcely troubled to consider it,” he said.
“I see.  Were you and Fellowes friendly?  You know, pals, pals, jolly old pals, if you’ll excuse my low-brow idiom?”
“Your lordship can afford to use slang.  No, we were in no sense friends.  It could hardly be expected that in my position I should fraternize with a young fellow of that type.”
“What type?”
“The chauffeur has been to sea, my lord, if not worse.  He is a very blunt-spoken young man, whose history has not been altogether reputable, I believe.”
“Whereas your own?”
“My references go back over many years, my lord, and I believe are unimpeachable.”
“It must have taken you those many years to cultivate your manner, Stall.  It is the most perfect thing of its kind I’ve ever come upon.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Was there anything else you didn’t like about Fellowes?”
“I disapproved of his familiarity with the parlourmaid.”
I noticed M. Picon at this point making patterns furiously with match-sticks.  He was evidently much excited by the turn the examination had taken.
“Was it very noticeable?”
“I believe they went to the length of considering themselves engaged to be married.”
“Was that so very wrong?  After all, Stall, we’re all young once.  Spring in the air, and what not.”
“Unsuitable, however, in members of the same staff, my lord.”
“Did Mrs. Thurston know of it?”
“Certainly not.”
“Would she have minded, do you think, if she had done so?”
At this point there was a noticeable pause, and watching Stall I could see him glance with real hostility towards his questioner.  The last question had sounded so commonplace that I could not understand this.
“I am not in a position to say, my lord,” he returned at last.
“There is nothing else, in fact, that you can tell us about the household, which might help us?”
Stall paused again.  “I think not, my lord.”
“There was nothing you had noticed which, for instance, would have displeased Dr. Thurston?”
Again that uncomfortable pause, and a shifty side-glance at Lord Simon.  “No, my lord.”
“It’s a very great pity, Stall, that when you learnt that charmin’ way of talkin’, you did not at the same time get in the habit of speakin’ the truth.”
“My lord . . .”
“You know to what I’m referrin’, don’t you?”
I respected Lord Simon at that moment.  He was so mercilessly, so icily, calm.  One felt all the reserve of experience and introspection that lay behind his foppish manner.  He was watching the wretched butler with a cold and detached stare, and I could see perspiration on Stall’s narrow forehead.  Several times the butler tried to avoid his eyes, and to speak, but it seemed that the young man was too strong for the older one.
“I have an idea,” he admitted in a low voice.
“You know that between Mrs. Thurston and the chauffeur was something which . . . shall we say, ought not to have existed?”
Williams broke in, “Really, Plimsoll . . .”
“Forgive me.  Jolly old murder will out,” Lord Simon reassured him.  “Never mind what it was, Stall, you know there was something?”
“I had my suspicions.”
“And you were paid for keepin’ them to yourself?”
At last the man pulled himself together.  His stage butler’s manner seemed to leave him and he turned angrily to Lord Simon.  “That’s not true!” he said.  “It wasn’t that!”
“Suppose you treat us to an inklin’ of the truth, then?”
“I had given Mrs. Thurston my notice,” he said slowly.  “I was to leave at the end of a fortnight.”
“Because . . . because of what you’ve just said.  She, and the chauffeur.  I wouldn’t stay in a place where that was going on.  I’m a respectable man.”
“Leaving meant losing my share of the will.  Or what I would have got if she’d gone first.  So Mrs. Thurston, of her own free will, decided to compensate me.”
“For your share of the will which you didn’t take seriously?”
“Well, since I had to leave through no fault of mine, Mrs. Thurston did not wish me to lose.”
“So she paid you several sums in single pound notes?”
“She gave me what compensation she saw fit.”
“I think you’ll be bally lucky if you get less than five years’ incomparably hard labour, Stall.  Even if that’s where your troubles end, my lad.”
Oddly enough it was at this point that Stall’s self-confidence seemed once more to return.  “For accepting a present from a lady on leaving her service, my lord?  I hardly think so.”
“For blackmail,” said Lord Simon briefly.  “Your witness, Picon.”
The little man sprang nimbly to his feet, scarcely able to contain himself.  “You have said that between the chauffeur and the parlourmaid there was what you call a romance, is it not?”
Stall looked contemptuous.  “If you like to put it that way.”
“They were attached to each other, these two?”
“Oh yes.”
“And between the chauffeur and Madame, also a little rapport, n’est-ce pas?”
“I don’t know what there was.  There was something.”
“Then the parlourmaid, seeing her lover has some understanding with her mistress, is she not jealous?”
“Oh, she knew which side her bread was buttered.”  It was strange how Stall’s grand manner had gone since he had been exposed.  He was defiant now, natural, and a little crude.
“Her bread?  Pardon me, but what has to do with it the bread and the butter?”
“I mean she knew what suited her own convenience.  She didn’t want him losing his job just then.”
Bien.  So she allowed him to flirt, as you say, with Madame?”
“I’m not saying she liked it.  But she had to put up with it.”
“You take a cynical view, Monsieur Stall.”
“I’ve seen enough to.  She with her rats!  What else did she want but to talk to him?”
“Ah.  That is interessant.  So the trap for the little rat, it was a bluff, then?  An arrangement?  A rendez-vous?”
“That’s what it comes to.”
Voilà!  Now we are marching.  So that last night when Madame told the chauffeur to set the trap, she meant for him to come and speak with her?”
“Shouldn’t be surprised.”
“And the girl, she would know that, too?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Then—as to this little gift, which Madame so kindly and so of her free will made you.  When did you receive that?”
Once again it seemed that Stall had been touched on a painful spot.  He did not answer.
“Yes?” encouraged M.  Picon gently.
“I’m trying to remember.”
“But surely, mon ami, one does not receive two hundred pounds every day.  Is it so ordinary that you have already forgotten?”
“Who said anything about two hundred pounds?”
“Was that not then the sum?”
Stall looked sulky.  “I don’t know.  It was a bundle of notes.  I haven’t counted it yet.”
Voilà!  A truly disinterested man!  But come, my friend, when did you receive this?”
This time his answer came pat.  “On Thursday afternoon.”
“At what time?”
“Just after lunch.”
“On Thursday?  The day before yesterday?”
“That’s right.”
Lord Simon heaved a despairing sigh, but M. Picon left the point.
“What then did you do after leaving Miss Storey so abruptly last night?”
“Went to bed.”
“Direct to bed?”
“You were in bed when you heard the screams?”
“And you came straight down to the floor below?”
“In the meanwhile, you heard nothing?”
“Your room is next door to that of the chauffeur, I think?”
“That’s right.”
“Did you hear him come to bed?”
“No.  I had a headache and wanted to sleep.”
“Do you sleep with the window open?”
“No.  Closed.”
Lord Simon groaned.  “So unhealthy,” he murmured.
But just then I received a shock of surprise.  So, from all appearances, did Stall.  For M. Picon snapped an extraordinary question at him.  “Where did the screams come from?” he said, looking straight at the butler.
“Come from?  What do you mean?”
“Just précisement what I say.  You heard the screams from your room.  Where did it seem to you that the scream was made?”
“I . . . I hadn’t thought of it.  I was half-asleep.  I just heard three screams.”
“But where?  Where?”
“Why, from Mrs.  Thurston’s room, I suppose.”
“You suppose!  But of what value to me, Amer Picon, is what you suppose?  You are sure that they came from Mrs. Thurston’s room?”
Stall seemed bewildered.  “Well . . . I hadn’t thought of it.”
With an impatient foreign sound, M. Picon turned away from him.
“Forgive my chiming in,” said Mgr. Smith.  “But a man may chime in as a bell may chime out.  And did a bell chime out, Stall?”
“When the girl was having hysterics?”
“Oh, then.  Let me think.  Yes.  The front-door bell.  It was the Vicar.”
Mgr. Smith was silent, and after a moment Sam Williams signed to the butler to leave.
“Our most illuminatin’ witness to date,” commented Lord Simon.
“He has certainly thrown some light on the subject,” said M. Picon.
“And the bell which did not ring may be its curfew,” soliloquized Mgr.  Smith.