Dead for a Ducat
Jason Pipford had taken and honours degree in chemistry at London University, and looked just like it. His thin lips, long pale face and chilly grey eyes matched his precise though not didactic way of talking. He had none of his mother’s bravado nor his sister’s downrightness. He never seemed able to forget that he was a scientist.
“My mother will be with us presently, Mr. Deene, and in the meanwhile she’s asked me to make certain indications to you. She wants you to discontinue all attempts to explain the two deaths in her household.”
“She knows very well I shouldn’t think for a moment of doing that. And while we’re alone, there are one or two questions I would like to ask you.”
Jason gave a little snigger which seemed to come more from his nose than his mouth.
“Me, Mr. Deene? I fail to see how I can have any possible connection with this matter.”
“Darryl Montaccord was a friend of yours, I believe?”
“I do not have friends. They are inconsistent with the scheme of life I follow. I knew the late Darryl Montaccord for some years. At one time we were undergraduates together.”
“You introduced him to your home?”
“You were aware of what your mother was doing—about the divorce, and Darryl’s hotel and her own Will and so on?”
“Certainly. I approved of all three steps she was taking.”
“You were coming down for Darryl’s last night in this house, why?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d brought him here, after all; I thought I should see him leave. We were all delighted that he was going.”
“But you did not come down that night?”
“No, Mr. Deene, I did not.” Jason spoke hurriedly.
“What prevented you?”
“My mother telephoned to say that Darryl had changed his mind. He would be here for another week.”
It occurred to Carolus that Jason might well have bought his journey was more and not less necessary when he heard this news. Surely he would have wanted to try persuading Daryl? But he made no comment.
“Do you think he shot himself?”
Jason blinked so slowly that is eyes remained shut for a full three seconds.
“I am not a psychiatrist, Mr. Deene. I’ve no doubt that if he had undergone psychiatric treatment those are examined him would be able to answer your question. I cannot.”
Carolus was silent for a moment.
“I do want to ask you to be a little helpful over this. I’m not being inquisitive or anything of the sort. I’m trying to clear up a very unpleasant crime and prevent any more.”
The lines from Jason’s nostrils to the corners of his mouth seemed to lengthen, as though he were conscious of a bad smell.
“But what can I possibly tell you, Mr. Deene?”
Carolus turned away.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know. But I have a most powerful feeling that there is something both you and your mother know which you don’t mean to tell me. Let me say this, then. The police anticipate another death here, and I refused to take any responsibility if I am not treated frankly.”
“As I have already told you, Mr. Deene, my mother wishes you to discontinue these enquiries.”
“Whereas I, of course, shall do nothing of the sort. I’ll find out the truth if it takes another two deaths in the house to show me.”
“More deaths?” asked Lady Pipford, who had come in quietly.
“I said that the police anticipate them. Margaret, you have both been very unfair. After all, you called me in on the night of Darryl’s death. Now you want me to drop it. You talk as though this were an amusement for me. I don’t deny for a moment that it’s intensely interesting, but it’s not that. Something very cruel and evil has been done, and I’m not going to sit quietly by and watch more. So what you please be as helpful as you can?”
“I’d much rather you left it alone, Carolus.”
“You know I can’t do that now.”
“And what is it you want to know?”
The little woman looked defiant, and colour had risen in her cheeks.
“I want to know about a box of Windsor chocolates which you kept locked in the cupboard of your bureau.”
Lady Pipford forced a little laugh.
“How absurd you are, Carolus! Just like a detective in a book. I don’t know in the least what you are talking about.”
“I’m talking about a box of Windsor chocolates which you looked away on the night of your last dinner-party after receiving a letter from your son.”
“Ah!” said Lady Pipford with forced humour. “The plot thickens, I see. But seriously, Carolus, let us forget melodrama. If you will go on asking questions, you must do so, but at least keep them sensible.”
“Remember receiving that letter?”
“Jason writes to me every week.”
“But you explained that you’re waiting for this particular one. Its contents seem to perturb you.”
“Did they? I don’t remember.”
“And the first thing you did was most extraordinary. In front of your guests, to whom you are always the soul of courtesy, you picked up a box of Windsor chocolates and locked it in the cupboard. Why? ”
“The question is really too silly to answer.”
“What happened to that box of chocolates, Margaret?”
“They were eaten, I expect. Most chocolate are in this house.”
“But they remained for a long time in that cupboard, while you kept others in the drawer below.”
“Yes, I know. I like sweets of most kinds. It’s been a weakness all my life.”
“Are they still there? ”
“I don’t know. Let’s see, shall we?”
Lady Pipford produced the keys and opened the cupboard. No box of chocolates was in it.
“I told you they’d been eaten long ago. You can’t keep sweets in this house.”
“You don’t mean to tell me what has happened to them?”
“My dear boy, you really give me a headache. I’ve told you all I can. Now do go and play detectives with someone else. I am getting tired of it.”
“I really think you would be well advised to do that, Mr. Deene,” put in Jason. “My mother is very distressed about May Swillow, and does not want to have to answer a lot of questions.”
“I understand that. In a different way I am also distressed about May Swillow. I feel that if I had been treated with rather more frankness I might have saved her life. Margaret, for your own sake I must ask you this. You had tea later that day, but you did not come in here and find May Swillow’s body till past six. Where were you in the meantime?”
“Out,” said Lady Pipford.
“You went out? It was a beastly night. Did you take the car?”
“No. The dogs.”
“Which way did you go?”
“Down the lane. Towards Swillow’s and the gardener’s cottages. And here’s something else for you. There was a car parked in the lane.”
“What sort of car?”
“I didn’t notice. I did not go as far as that. I just saw it before turning back.”
“That’s very interesting. I wonder if it had ever been there before.”
“Didn’t you know? Nockings saw one there on the night Darryl died.”
“So he did. I remember now.”
“And that, my dear Carolus, must really be all, for today at any rate.”
“Very well. I won’t ask another question. But I want to beg you to close this house for a time and go away entirely on your own.”
“No. I can’t do that.”
“But a life, perhaps more than one, may depend on it. I am in earnest, Margaret.”
“So am I.”
“He turned to Jason.”
“Won’t you help to persuade your mother?”
“My mother always does precisely as she pleases. I should not attempt to influence her.”
“Very well. I can do no more.”
“Have a drink before you go, Carolus?” suggested Lady Pipford. There was a hint of pleading in her voice.
“No, thank you.”
“I’ve never heard you refuse a drink before.”
Jason Pipford turned his mouth down at the corners.
“He’s probably afraid of being poisoned,” he said.
The silence which followed this remark was rather overwhelming, and almost immediately Carolus broke it by taking his leave.
As he came out of the front door he found a still and starry night. It was fairly cold but the quietness seemed unnatural at that time. Carolus drove his car from the drive, but at a sufficient distance to be inaudible behind the closed windows of the house he pulled into the side of the road and switched off his engine.
He was not following a careful plan. As a detective he was always inclined to trust his instincts and impulses as much as logic, and he was doing so now. Mincott House, which he had known for years as a pleasant place, well kept and hospitable, and tonight a different, rather sinister attraction for him. He did not want to leave it, yet. He had a presentiment that you would learn something more.
Before returning to the house, however, he had to leave his car in better concealment than this. He looked about him, and saw a rough cart-track running off in the direction opposite to that of the village. It was past ten now, and he thought that no vehicle was likely to want to pass and decided to chance it. A hundred yards from the road there was sufficient pull-in to leave room for another car, and he stopped there.
Carolus walked back sharply to the gates of Mincott House, then stepped on the grass verge to continue his way. Across the small lawn in front of the main door was a little half-decayed summer-house with a thatched roof, and he made for this. The moon was behind him and he could see the drive and front door quite clearly. He sat down cautiously and begun a vigil.
He noticed with satisfaction that there was a gap between the curtains of the smoking-room. Miss Crick, her head full of other matters of more interest to herself, had evidently pulled them carelessly. For a quarter of an hour nothing happened to break the still calm of the evening, then a man on foot passed through the open gates and started to walk rather uncertainly up the drive. In a few moments Carolus recognized him. It was Monty Boater.
It seemed strange to Carolus that a man who made a parade of self-confidence, as Boater did, should behave now with such indecisiveness. At first he seemed about to approach the front door then hesitated while still a yard or two away from it. He stood still for a moment. Carolus could see his bulky outline, and it seemed slightly to sway. Finally Boater stepped on to a flower-bed and very cautiously approached the lighted gap in the curtains of the smoking-room.
He did not, however, look in immediately but, standing a little to one side of the window, slowly moved his head till he could see into the room. Carolus watched him as he peered in, then quietly left his summer-house and cutting through a shrubbery reached the front gates. As he thought, Boater,perhaps discomfited by what he observed, left his observation post and began walking down the drive towards Carolus.
In the road Carolus waited, then, as Boater approached, he made to be walking briskly towards the entrance. The headmaster’s mode of greeting seemed to him appropriate here, and he used it.
“Ah, Boater,” he volleyed.
Mr. Boater was visibly startled.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said, with no relief in his voice.
“Nice night, isn’t it?” said Carolus.
“Yes. Nice night. I was just out for a stroll.”
“Been to call on Lady Pipford?”
“Yes. Well, no. I didn’t go in. I think they must have gone to bed.”
“Surely not. There’s a light in the smoking-room.”
“So there is. I shan’t trouble them now, though.”
“I’m just going in,” said Carolus. “Come back with me.”
“No, thanks. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand the son.”
“Oh, is Jason there?”
“Yes. Well, I suppose so. I understood he was coming down.”
“To tell you the truth, Deene, I just left the Bull. I thought it might be a good idea to give my condolences to Lady P. Frightful thing, two deaths in the house in a week.”
“Then why don’t you? Come back with me.”
“No, no. Thanks very much. I’ll toddle along.”
“Just as you like. I’ll tell Lady Pipford you send your sympathy. But I thought you weren’t on speaking terms.”
“I know. At a time like this, though . . .”
“Quite. I’ll say good night.”
“Good night, Deene.”
He veered away, and Carolus returned towards his summer-house.
As he approached it he saw a tall figure standing in the doorway, and not until he came close did he recognize Nockings. There was something ugly, even a little menacing, about the solemn man’s presence there. But fortunately Nockings seems to assume that Carolus had seen him from a distance and come across to investigate.
“Good evening, Mr. Deene,” he said, lowering his gloomy voice as though he feared to be overheard. “I’m just making my rounds. It seems only Right to me to keep an eye on things just now.”
“Certainly, Nockings. Have you seen anything to arouse your suspicions?”
“I can’t say I have this evening. But, then, I’m not a man to go jumping and thumping at every little sound round the house. I did think I saw Mr. Boater talking to you by the gate.”
“You did. Is it unusual for him to come here?”
“When the late Mr. Montaccord was alive,” said Nockings lugubriously, “it was nothing extraordinary for this Mr. Boater to pop in by the scullery window. I think the two of them liked a gamble over some card game. I’m no bigot, Mr. Deene; I believe that a man may indulge within reason in a little flutter. I wouldn’t go sneering and jeering at others because they like an occasional glass of ale, though I was brought up in a persuasion in which Temperance is strictly enforced, the Salvation Army. I’m Church now, owing to the inconvenience. But I was saying about Mr. Montaccord and Mr. Boater. It seems they was staking and taking half the night with cards, and sopping and mopping of her Ladyship’s whisky at the same time.”
“Still, I don’t suppose this happened very frequently.”
“I’m not a man to exaggerate nor make mountains out of molehills, Mr. Deene. I should say it happened about once a month taking it all in all.”
“That doesn’t account for Boater’s visit here tonight.”
“No, it doesn’t. Nor yet his visit the other night.”
“When was that?”
“Monday night. I have my Duty here, Mr. Deene, and just now I feel it’s only Right to keep an eye on things at night. It isn’t that I want to go spying and prying on Lady Pipford, but there’s comings and goings I think she ought to know about. I was reading in the paper . . .”
“Yes, Nockings. You were telling me about this Mr. Boater.”
“So I will, Mr. Deene, if you let me get my breath. I’m not a man who likes to go clacking and quacking about nothing at all when he has something of importance to say. This Mr. Boater came here on Monday, and it must have been about this time or a little earlier. But he did not go parading up towards the front door, as he did tonight, but made his way round by my grass verges. I kept out of sight, but I watched him. And where do you think you was making for?”
“I have no idea.”
“He went creeping and peeping all the way round the house to be reached my boiler-room. I watched him try the door and go in. ‘Now what in the world,’ I asked myself, ‘can this Boater be wanting in my boiler-room?’ He must have been in there three or four minutes before I saw the door open and him come out.”
“Sliding and gliding?” suggested Carolus.
Nockings haughtily ignored this.
“He looked about to see if anyone was watching him, and I kept out of sight. I decided not to go up to him, but to make a note of his movements to report later. He returned to the gates by the same way as he came.”
“Was he carrying anything we first came in?”
“Not that I could see.”
“Nor when he went away?”
“No. Nothing to notice. I think I should have seen if he had been.”
“Do you come here at this time every night, Nockings?”
“While we’re having these deaths which no one seems to explain properly, I feel it only right to do so.”
“You were here on the night that Darryl Montaccord died, I seem to remember?”
“So I was. Duty is a hard taskmaster, Mr. Deene, and I have my duty to Lady Pipford. I was reading in the paper . . .”
Nockings was interrupted at this point by the sight of two headlights coming up the road from the village. He and Carolus watched in silence as a car turned into the drive and stopped before the front door.
“Young Bretton.” The whisper of Nockings could only be described as sepulchral.
When Eddy Bretton remained in the driver’s seat of the car and turned off his lights and engine it seemed obvious that his car was there as a taxi.
This proved to be the case. After a few minutes the front door opened, and in the brilliant light of the interior Carolus saw Jason Pipford, wearing a raincoat and carrying a suitcase. He could hear his thin, precise voice.
“Good-bye, mother. Don’t worry unnecessarily, and telephone me if you require anything.”
He kissed Lady Pipford quickly on the forehead and got into the waiting taxi, which drove off at once.
Nockings appeared to be so interested that he forgot all circumlocution and reflections.
“Must be taking him right up to London,” he said. “There’s no train at this hour.”
Carolus said nothing except a sharp good night. He had to back his car out of the lane, and it was past midnight when he reached his home.