Rudolf came to the door of the lodge in which he lived and invited us in, explaining that his wife was out.
“Pity,” said Beef, “I’d like a few words with her.”
“With Zena? Oh, I suppose Mrs. Ducrow has told you that story of hers about hearing Zena whistling the dogs. Imagination, if you ask me.”
“Where was your wife that night, Mr. Ducrow?”
“She went to the pictures. Took the car. It really won’t help you to try to involve her, I assure you.”
“Everyone is involved,” said Beef. “And now we’ve got to do some very plain talking. I may as well tell you at once that Mrs. Ducrow has told me where you were that night. And other nights.”
Rudolf stood up. I thought at first that he was going to be violently angry, but after a few moments’ silence he spoke in a tense but well-controlled voice.
“She shouldn’t have done that.”
“It had to come out. I shall be surprised if the police don’t know. And at least it explains what you were doing in the park at four o’clock in the morning.”
He remained thoughtful.
“Tell me about that evening.”
As he told his story I for one believed that Rudolf was speaking the truth. He told of the open door in the kitchen which had mysteriously and silently closed when he started going up the back stairs; he confirmed Freda Ducrow’s estimate of the time of his leaving her; he said that during his walk home he had neither seen nor heard anything unusual. He had left the house by the back door as usual, come round to the front and followed the drive. It had taken him perhaps six or seven minutes because he had to go very quietly out of the house and silently shut the door after him. He had passed near the pavilion, as he always did on his way down the drive, but had noticed nothing. He had been very surprised to see Dunton waiting about near the lodges. When he got in he went straight up to bed. His wife always slept with her door open, and as he passed her room he heard her snoring. He knew nothing more. It was true that the bloodstained croquet mallet found by the body was his favourite and was used by no one else. He knew that he and Freda Ducrow and Theo Gray were equal beneficiaries under Cosmo’s will. He agreed that the case looked black against him, but he was innocent.
“There were no lights shewing in the lower windows of the house that night when you left?”
“You didn’t hear a car pass through the lodge gates after you got to bed?”
“You’ve nothing else to tell me about that night?”
“Nothing. So far as I knew till the morning it was a night like any other. There was just that half-open door. Oh, and one other thing, though it obviously has nothing to do with Cosmo’s death.”
“I was alone in this house all the evening until I went up to Hokestones about midnight. Some time after ten one of my wife’s dogs started barking and I went out to see what was disturbing the creature. She breeds boxers, you know, and she trains them not to make a racket unless they’re disturbed. This one barked for about two minutes. I took a torch and went to the kennels. Just as I was returning I saw what had disturbed the dog. Someone was standing outside Dunton’s front door.”
“His wife, I suppose?”
“Yes. But she had not been near the place for weeks and had left Dunton because he stayed with Cosmo. She saw me and asked if I knew whether Dunton was in. I said that as far as I knew he was, and just then the door was opened by Dunton and they went in together.”
“It only needed that,” said Beef. “That means there were at least a dozen people round the place at one time or another that night.”
“Good Lord, you surely don’t suppose that Mrs. Dunton could have had anything to do with it?”
“But who could? That’s what I want to know. No one can believe that anyone else would do such a thing. But he didn’t crack his own head open with a croquet mallet. Now suppose it was Cosmo Ducrow at the kitchen door. Suppose he saw you going upstairs to his wife’s bedroom. What would he have done?”
“I don’t know, but something pretty desperate. He wouldn’t have let it pass.”
“What anyone might suppose he did was to wait till you came down, follow you across the park to the pavilion and there attack you in some way which would make you strike in self-defence . . .”
“No,” said Rudolf, “that wouldn’t work. You can’t smash the back of a man’s skull in with a croquet mallet in self-defence. Besides, as I’ve told you, I never saw him that evening at all.”
“All right,” said Beef wearily. “Let’s leave it at that, shall we? I was going to ask you whether you’ve by any chance got an old gun you could lend me? If there’s one thing I enjoy it’s a bit of rabbit-shooting, and there should be plenty round the park.”
“I’ll lend you my gun,” he said, “but you needn’t be afraid I’m going to do myself in. Or anyone else, for that matter.”
“Still with all this going on you’d be better with it out of the way,” said Beef. “Where is it?”
Rudolf rose and led the way to a little cloakroom. It was not more than ten feet square and was part of the house which had been built on, I surmised. Besides the W.C. there was a hand-basin, a row of coat pegs with overcoats hanging from them, and an old table on which were a dog’s comb and brush, while under it were three dog-baskets. The whole room smelt of dogs.
Rudolf explained that some of his wife’s boxers slept here and added that they were all over the place. Then he pointed to his gun, which was leaning against the wall by the laden coat pegs. Beef went across to pick it up, but before doing so he stopped and stood staring at the coats. Then he turned to Rudolf.
“Is this your jacket?” he asked casually.
Rudolf did not seem interested.
“Yes; an old one,” he said.
“Why do you keep it down here with the overcoats?”
“I didn’t know it was here.”
“Where is it usually kept?”
“Upstairs, I suppose. I haven’t worn it for some time.”
“Mr. Ducrow, I would ask you to try to remember everything you can about this jacket. I regard it as important. When did you wear it last?”
“I can’t say, really. Back in the summer, I think.”
“You were not wearing it on the night of the murder?”
“No . . . well, I don’t think so. I can’t remember when I wore it.”
“You have another light-coloured sports coat?”
“Yes. Two. This is the oldest.”
“Have you ever hung this up in the house—at Hokestones, I mean?”
Light broke on Rudolf’s face.
“Why, yes. Now you mention it. I remember leaving it up there in the summer. I was going to do a job on the car with Mills and went out in my shirt sleeves. Then I drove straight here, forgetting it altogether.”
“Did you never go and fetch it?”
“No. Clean forgot.”
“How did it get here then?”
“Blowed if I know.”
“Come now, Mr. Ducrow. There must be some explanation.”
“I don’t know. I may have brought it down, but I can’t remember doing so.”
“How long has it been here?”
“Don’t know that either, I’m afraid. Never noticed it before.”
“Do you mind if I take it away with me?”
“To wear for rabbit-shooting? All right.”
Beef picked up the gun and jacket, and laden with these we were making for the front door when there was a fury of barking outside and we heard a woman’s deep voice, shouting, “Down, Stalin! Come here, Molotov! Lenin, will you behave yourself?” Then a loud shrill whistle repeated four times on one note: Whee, WHEE, whee, WHEEEE. The front door opened and a pack of boxers hurtled in followed by a hefty young woman in jodhpurs. The dogs barked and sniffed round us, but without animosity. There was a scene of much confusion till their names had been shouted again and the whole of the Supreme Soviet had been incarcerated in the cloakroom.
“My wife,” explained Rudolf unnecessarily.
Zena gave a painful handshake to each of us and boomed, “Better have a cup of tea before you go,” adding to Rudolf, “That’s the least you can do if they’re going to save your skin.”
Beef, I could see, did not much relish this light-hearted treatment of the matter in hand, but came back into the sitting-room with us. It was Rudolf who went out to the kitchen, and this gave Beef an opportunity to put one of his embarrassingly direct questions to Zena.
“Were you up at the house on the night of the murder?”
After only a few seconds’ pause she grinned.
“Yes. I wonder how you discovered that. I didn’t think anyone saw me except Cosmo.”
“Oh, he did?”
“Of course. I went to see him. I knew he’d be in the library and went straight to the french windows.”
“What did you want to see him about?”
“Don’t you know? You know about Rudolf and Freda, don’t you?” Beef nodded. “Well, old Cosmo and I were the wronged parties, as it were. I thought we ought to get together and make some decisions.”
“And did you?”
“Extraordinary thing. The old boy wouldn’t believe a word of it. I never dreamt he wasn’t wise to the whole thing. Everyone else was—even the servants. But no, he wouldn’t believe it. Shook him—I could see that. But he would not admit it was possible.”
“At what time was this?”
“Not late. Soon after eleven, I should think.”
“Did you offer any proof?”
“I told him he could find them together any night. It seemed just silly to me, his refusing to face facts.”
“How long were you with him?”
“About half an hour, I should think.”
“And you left him in the library?”
“Well, he was walking about as I talked to him and when I left I saw him go towards the door.”
“Did you come straight home?”
“No. I didn’t want to meet Rudy on his way to Freda. Too embarrassing. So I slunk off by the back drive and came round by the road.”
“Have you told the police this?”
“Good Lord, no. I don’t want to get involved, and anyway it would make things worse for Rudy, wouldn’t it? There’s no grudge between us, you know. Just don’t like being married to one another. If I said that I’d just shewn Cosmo the light on Rudy and Freda it would suggest that there might have been some sort of a showdown between uncle and nephew, don’t you think?”
“And you don’t think there was?”
“No. Rudy says he didn’t see the old boy that night. He’s a dirty dog in some ways, but he doesn’t lie.”
“Do you, Mrs. Ducrow?”
“Like a trooper. But I’ve told you the truth about this.”
Rudolf Ducrow came in with a tray. We drank tea without speaking much except for a few questions from Beef to Zena about the jacket. She had never noticed it, she said, or noticed its absence lately. She had sometimes worn it herself last winter when she was going out to feed the dogs.
“Do you play this game of croquet?” Beef asked finally.
“Don’t be a chump!” bellowed Zena. “Dam’ silly kids game. What do you take me for? I’ll give you a game of snooker if you want it.”
Without accepting this invitation and still carrying coat and gun, Beef took his leave.