Beef, of course, expected this to gain an effect, and he was not disappointed. To describe the faces around him I can only use the old-fashioned adjective “spellbound”. Rudolf was the first to pull himself together.
“Look here,” he said. “I don’t know if you’re trying to be funny. But if you think that a man can bash in the back of his own skull with a croquet mallet you must be out of your mind. Surely if ever a murder was obvious it was this one?”
“That’s the point. It was obvious. A little too obvious. Murderers don’t as a rule leave their weapons for everyone to see. Nor do they use about six times the violence that is necessary. That was what made me think. I soon realized what made this case unique. Most murderers try to make murder look like suicide. Someone here had tried to make suicide look like murder. ”
“Very neat,” said Stute. “But have you any proof of this?”
“Until tonight I hadn’t much. Just bits of circumstantial evidence. But now, luckily, I think I can give you all the proof we shall need. That is if Mr. Townsend will just hand me a book called The Declining Empire, or something of the sort.”
“You mean Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Which volume do you want?”
“Eh?” said Beef nervously.
“It’s in ten volumes.”
“Let’s have the lot, then.”
It was not long before he had flicked over the pages and pulled out a loose sheet of paper from one of the volumes. When he had read this he handed it to Stute. Later I was able to copy it:
It is one o’clock. Not much more than an hour ago I was a fairly happy man. I now know that I was a most deluded one and that my wife has been deceiving me for a long time, and that the nephew whom I trusted is a blackguard. I have discussed this with only one man, and he alone knows that I mean to die by my own hand and at once, tonight. It is the best way out. I want no further part in a life which can do this to me.”
“Is that proof enough?”
“So long as this is the man’s handwriting.”
“Thanks,” said Beef. “So you see my first guess was right. Now I’d better go back to the beginning of the case and tell you what happened.
“That night was, as Gray said, like any other night up to the time when Gray left Cosmo in the library with his stamps. This was a fairly happy household, for Cosmo Ducrow knew nothing of his nephew’s behaviour, and Gray, though he had made a careful study of crime and murder methods, was not a man to show his hand. He was content if necessary to wait for his friend’s death to inherit his share of a great fortune. I say ‘if necessary’, for I think that he had worked out a few little schemes which he might be able to put into effect in certain circumstances.
“Now on this particular night Zena Ducrow decided to go and tackle Cosmo about her husband. In fairness to her I must say that I believe her entirely when she says she never dreamed that Cosmo did not know. Everyone else did, including the staff. It seemed impossible that Cosmo should not. So without saying anything to her husband Zena walked across the park with one of her dogs. Freda Ducrow, up in her bedroom which overlooks the terrace, heard her whistling the animal in the unmistakable way she has. Naturally enough, instead of waking the servants she went to the french windows of the library, tapped, and was admitted by Cosmo. She has told us quite frankly of the conversation which followed and of Cosmo’s shock on hearing about his wife. Then she went back by a round-about way, not wishing to meet her husband. She knew he would be coming up to the house at this time.
“Cosmo knew that, too, and knew from Zena probably that he was admitted through the back door by the Gabriels. Cosmo waited, saw Rudolf cross the kitchen and go up the back stairs. That was enough confirmation of Zena’s story. He was sure now that the worst was true.
“Now before we go any farther, I was wondering if we couldn’t have a nice cup of tea? It’s dry work this, and a cup of tea would go down a treat. What do you say, Mr. Ducrow?” He turned to Rudolf as, presumably, the house’s new owner. “After all, I was employed to clear you of the murder of Cosmo Ducrow and I’ve done so. Am I asking too much?”
Rudolf managed to answer with a faint and not very friendly smile. “What about it, Mrs. Gabriel?”
“I’m sure we could all do with a cup, Mr. Rudolf. I’ll nip and put the kettle on.”
“I’ll slip out and help yon,” said Mrs. Dunton.
Cigarettes were lit and a buzz of conversation started while we waited. There was no more incredulity now, only impatience to hear the rest.
“For a murdered man you’re bearing up very well,” I said to Beef.
“I wish I felt it. I’m a mass of bruises, and I’ve got a cold coming on. But we’ll get this over.”
The women returned with a large tray, and Beef was soon lapping at a breakfast cup full of black sweet tea.
“Cosmo was a man to trust his friends, and feeling himself betrayed by his nephew he decided to consult his life-long crony Theo Gray. But in order to get to his room by the usual way he would have to pass his wife’s door, so he decided to use the back staircase. He crept up, called Theo out and the two went downstairs together. That was why Mrs. Gabriel heard one set of footsteps going up and two coming down again.
“I’m not even going to guess what took place between them, except to say that I don’t think Gray tried very hard to dissuade his old friend from suicide. I think, in fact, that when Gray left him later he knew not only that Cosmo was going to kill himself but also where and how.
“That, I must admit at once, is more than I know. We shall, I suppose, soon be able to establish by a post mortem how it was done, though Gray covered this up pretty well. When a doctor sees a man with no back of the cranium at all but a mass of splintered bone and brain he is not likely to look for any other cause of death. It may be that Cosmo poisoned himself, for there were sleeping tablets in the house, or it may even be that he shot himself with Gray’s pistol, conveniently lent for the occasion. If he had put the barrel between his lips and fired through the roof of his mouth it is possible that the battering of his head would conceal all signs of it.
“As to where this happened, I would not like to guess. If it was a shot it must have been done by the little pavilion, I think, or someone would have heard it. If it was poison it could have been in the house, for Gray could have carried that thin little body down to the pavilion after death. At all events, Cosmo did as one might expect a man of his neurotic and mis—misan——”
“Misanthropic,” I whispered quickly.
“And misanthropic nature to do—he committed suicide, and Theo Gray knew that he had. He was clever enough to see in that his chance.”
There was another pause while Beef refilled his cup.
“Mr. Townsend’s a writer,” he went on presently, “and I daresay he could give you a picture of the criminal’s mind. He could very likely explain with bags of psychology just what made Gray do what he did. To me it’s still a bit of a puzzle. He was going to get a third of Cosmo’s fortune anyway, and that would make him a rich man. Why risk anything for more? A part of the answer is that he wasn’t risking anything. He could put the little letter which Cosmo had left on his table safely tucked away in a book which no one was likely to take down, so that if ever he were accused of Cosmo’s murder he could clear himself. What he planned to do, therefore, entailed no risk to him, even if it was discovered that he had had something to do with it.
“What he saw was this. If Cosmo’s suicide could be made to look like murder only one man would be suspected, and that was Rudolf Ducrow. Get him hanged for it, and there would be another third share in the kitty. And with Rudolf in the house now and going home across the park later it would be the easiest thing in the world to pin it on Rudolf.
“Cosmo’s body was down by the pavilion. Whether he had killed himself there or whether Gray moved the corpse does not much matter at this point. Gray thought out his plan carefully and went to work. He remembered seeing an old jacket of Rudolf’s which had been hanging in the cloakroom since last summer. This, he thought, would be a first means of associating Rudolf with the crime. He put it on under his overcoat and went out through the french windows. No one saw him at this time, but if anyone had seen him I feel sure they would have noticed that he carried an open umbrella. This effectively concealed his identity from any possible observer above him.
“He made his way to the pavilion and decided that the corpse should appear to have been battered to death with a croquet mallet. He was wearing gloves, but realized that if he used Rudolf’s mallet he would smudge the finger-prints from it, so he picked up another mallet, one of no particular significance, and used it to smash in the dead man’s skull. When I came later to try the game of croquet I decided that the blows dealt to Cosmo’s head were only likely to have been given if the head was on the ground in the position of a croquet ball. Having done that he took Rudolf’s mallet, blooded it, and holding it gingerly all the time, left it by the corpse. Then he also stained the sleeve of the jacket with Cosmo’s blood and left the dead man there.
“Gray forgot nothing. He took the mallet which he had actually used for smashing in Cosmo’s skull and carried it back to the house. As he approached and knew that he might be in view of the windows, he put up his umbrella and made his way to the garage yard. He broke the handle of the mallet and pushed it with the round smooth hammer part into the furnace, feeling certain that they would be completely destroyed in a few minutes. We owe our knowledge of this part of his action to Mills, whose curiosity took him down to see what had been burnt. Unfortunately he could not recover the mallet from the flames. It would have made a nice exhibit.
“Gray returned to his room unheard by Freda and Rudolf, locked the jacket away somewhere, and sat down to await Rudolf’s departure.
“The next part of his plan was daring and clever. He had to make sure that Rudolf was seen going home across the park. It occurred to him that there might otherwise be no evidence of Rudolf’s presence in the house that night, for Freda Ducrow was scarcely likely to reveal it, and the Gabriels might not be able to say for certain that he had come. So he waited, listening for Rudolf to leave Freda Ducrow’s room, then, when he knew that Rudolf was clear of the house, he hurried down and telephoned Dunton with a story about shouts in the park. Dunton was to keep a look-out, which meant that he would just about be in time to see Rudolf returning to his house.
“Gray had a piece of luck there, for Mrs. Dunton had returned to the lodge that night and she and her husband had a great deal to talk over. They were still up when Gray telephoned, so that Dunton was in plenty of time to see Rudolf. Rudolf looked a bit put out and nervous, but that was natural enough in the circumstances. So Gray was able to go to bed that night feeling very pleased with himself. The event he had been awaiting for years, the death of Cosmo, had come to pass with no assistance from him, and by a few little touches here and there he had pinned it on one of the three inheritors of Cosmo’s money whose share, in the event of his death, would swell the incomes of himself and Freda Ducrow. He had the suicide note in case, as a last resort, he needed it. He must have slept well that night.
“On his way back to his room after telephoning Dunton he met Freda Ducrow, who had heard him go downstairs and thought he was following Rudolf. She was relieved to hear that it was only some shouting he had heard and that he had telephoned Dunton about it. He did not mind her seeing him because in any case he was going to be quite open about his call to Dunton.
“No, there was nothing to disturb his sleep. Not even the fact that he had perhaps helped his oldest friend to kill himself and had planned to get an innocent man hanged for his death. I told you tonight that there are times when I want to forget this thing called human nature. Gray has made one of those times for me. I hope you’re getting all this down, Townsend? Don’t miss that bit about human nature, will you? I meant what I said about that.”