Looking back now to the moment when I first saw Freda Ducrow, I try to sort out my emotions and decide what was her immediate impact on me. Oddly enough I think I felt something not unlike fear, as though she were an almighty schoolmistress who had caught me peeping into things that were no business of mine.
She was a big dark florid woman, and although at a distance she might have been thought handsome, even regal, as she came closer one saw that her features were too heavy and sensual-looking. She carried her tall figure well and dressed as though she wished to look dignified rather than merely attractive. She spoke loudly and insistently, like an actress in a small part trying to be noticed. Her manner to both Beef and me was rather patronizing, but not unfriendly.
I watched her as she entered the room and knew instinctively that although she might be innocent of everything connected with her husband’s death, she was yet capable of having murdered him. That passionate face could darken to a fury which would know no restraint.
“Mr. Gray tells me that you are a very experienced detective?” she said to Beef when introductions were over.
“I’ve worked out one or two cases,” said Beef modestly.
“Then you won’t fail in this one, I’m sure. The police have been wasting time in trying to implicate my husband’s nephew Rudolf. You will be able to start ahead of them. We shall all do our best to give you any information you require.”
“Thank you. When was the last time you saw your husband?”
Mrs. Ducrow seemed scarcely prepared to be taken so promptly at her word, but soon recovered from surprise. “When I said goodnight to him and Mr. Gray that evening.”
“There was nothing unusual about him, then?”
“Nothing special. My husband was an unusual man, remember.”
“He had no worries?”
Mrs. Ducrow smiled.
“He wasn’t as unusual as that,” she said. “A man with no worries today would be unique, surely?”
“What were his worries?”
“His health. His nervousness and inability to meet people. The welfare of his relatives and friends. He would manage to worry himself if one of the staff was in trouble.”
“And was one?”
I was aware of a certain tenseness in the room as Mrs. Ducrow turned to Theo Gray.
“Dunton,” she said at last. “His wife is a woman of ungovernable temper. Scarcely sane, I think. She used to work in the house, but we had to dismiss her some months ago. She thought Dunton should give up the lodge and leave us, and when he refused to do so she left him and went to live with her married sister in the village. She has continued to slander us in the most malicious way.”
“What does she say?”
“Oh, the usual lies. But Dunton was very worried about it. He is a quiet man who doesn’t make friends easily, but he is hardworking and honest. My husband thought a lot of him.”
“Otherwise Mr. Ducrow had nothing particular on his mind? No money worries?”
“That would have been the last thing to trouble him, wouldn’t it, Theo? He left all his affairs to us to handle.”
“Well, to me. But Mr. Gray and Major Gulley advised me. There was nothing connected with money causing any of us worry.”
“You’re very lucky. Did you hear the shouting in the garden which Mr. Gray heard that night?”
“No. My room faces east. But I heard Mr. Gray pass my door to go downstairs.”
“Did he make much noise then?”
“No. But I happened to be awake.”
“Do you sleep badly?”
“Not usually. That night I was restless, I think. I waited for his return and asked him what was the matter. He told me and went to bed. I was soon asleep after that.”
“And have you absolutely no suggestion to make, Mrs. Ducrow? Nothing that might account for the tragedy?”
“None. I cannot believe that anyone we knew or employed could have done it, and I cannot see why a stranger should have.”
It was during the silence which followed that I first became conscious of something which seemed to me in some indefinable way sinister, almost terrifying, in the atmosphere about us. Here was these three people, two men and a woman, sharing something, or oppressed by the same doubts or fears, or, as I thought, in league in some way. They were all watching Beef, who sat there unmoved or unaware, but I had the dark momentary fancy that they were waiting for him to ask some other question, waiting in terror and out of terror ready to strike.
Could Cosmo Ducrow’s murder have been planned between them? Was all this rehearsed? Or was it my imagination which filled this quiet room with its high rows of books and thick carpet, this seemingly padded room, with menace? They had all been polite and had answered Beef’s embarrassing questions almost without rancour. Was it quite natural for them to be so agreeable?
I am, perhaps, too sensitive to atmosphere but I swear that in that long silence, broken by not even the tick of a clock, I was frightened. I believed that I was in the presence of at least one murderer, who would not scruple to strike again. I am not, I hope, a cowardly man but I almost resolved just then to get Beef aside and persuade him to throw up the case.
He turned over the pages of his notebook, then looked up. “A nice start,” he said. “I shouldn’t be surprised but what I might solve this quicker than anyone thinks.”
“I hope you do,” said Gray quickly.
“There’s a few more general questions I’d like to ask while we’re all together. First of all, has anyone seen the will?”
“It has been read,” said Gray. “Its terms are quite plain. The bulk of the money is left in trust for Mrs. Ducrow, myself and Rudolf, and on the death of any of us who is childless his third of the capital simply remains in the trust for the benefit of the other two. Eventually the money passes to any children we may have or to certain carefully selected charities. But the legacies to employees were unusually large, even for an estate of this size. Major Gulley receives £10,000, the Gabriels and Dunton £3,000 each, while even Mills who has only been with us three or four years, gets £2,000.”
“Will made some time ago?” asked Beef.
“No. About eighteen months back.”
“I see. Now about this croquet. Did anyone play the game?”
Gulley answered this time with a rich, throaty chuckle. “Indeed we did. All of us. It was the one game Cosmo enjoyed. And very good fun, as a matter of fact.”
“What do you play it with?”
“Balls,” said Major Gulley. “Wooden balls and mallets. You hit them through hoops. A mallet looks something like a sledge-hammer only it’s all wood.”
“Did each of you have his own mallet?”
“Not really. We took any one we found. Rudolf had a favourite, though.”
“And the one thought to be used in the murder was this favourite one of Rudolf Ducrow’s?”
“So there was nothing funny about it having his fingerprints on it?”
Gray coughed. “I pointed that out to the police,” he said, “but I gathered that they still thought it pretty incriminating for Rudolf. You see, if anyone else had used it he would either have left fingerprints himself, or, if he had worn gloves or anything, wiped the others away. Neither of these had happened, it seems.”
“Mm. Now the time factor. Does this help t all? You phoned to Dunton within a few minutes of hearing the shouts. He pulled some clothes on and came out in time to see Rudolf approaching his house. Now, presuming the shouts came at the time of the murder, would the murderer have had time to reach the lodge gates?”
“Just about, I’m afraid,” said Gray.
“Well, I’ll go over the ground tomorrow and see what I think. Now what else is there? Oh, yes, did Mr. Ducrow have any connection with the Glasgow-Brazilian Steamship Company?”
“A certain amount of his money remained invested in it, but he took no part in the direction of its affairs. He was not even on the Board.”
“He had no other relatives?”
“Not that we know of. Rudolf was the only son of Cosmo’s brother who was killed in a car smash about a month after Rudolf’s birth. Cosmo’s sister-in-law, Rudolf’s mother, died five years ago. Old Mulford Ducrow was an only son, too, and Cosmo’s mother, who died at his birth, was taken by the old man straight to church from an orphanage in Malta in which she had been brought up. So there does not seem much possibility of unknown relatives.”
Beef snapped the elastic of his notebook and beamed on them.
“Thank you very much,” he said. “That’s all most helpful. Now later this evening I want to go and have a chat with the Gabriels. Will that be all right?”
I was certain now that they watched him uncomfortably. I was as sure of a threat in the air as one is of a thunder-storm during the unnatural silence that comes before it.
“Certainly,” said Gray at last. “You must question whom you like. Go where you like. Now I’ll show you both your rooms.”
Beef was about to say that he had no wish to see his room till he went to sleep in it, but I managed to signal to him to go without protest.
When Gray had gone downstairs I went and tapped at Beef’s door.
“Hullo,” he said. “Going nicely, isn’t it?”
“Beef,” I said, “let’s throw this case up. I don’t like it.”
“What don’t you like?”
“There’s something very queer about these people. I had a feeling downstairs that there was some threat hanging over us.”
“Funny you should say that. I felt a bit creepy myself. But that doesn’t mean any of them’s guilty. They’ve got a lot to hide, that’s all.”
“You may be right. All the same, I don’t like this house, or these people, or this case.”
“I don’t either. But I’m not going to throw it up till it’s solved. One of these nice-mannered customers has done the old boy in, and we’re going to find out which. You’re probably worried because you don’t think it’s the sort of story for you to write up. You’ve always done nice cheerful murders, haven’t you? You try your hand at this, though. It may be nasty, but it’s very, very promising. I’ve got the beginnings of an idea already.”
“You don’t feel an air of danger?”
“Not yet, I don’t. But I shouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a bit of funny work if I find out too much. You just watch.”