Dead for a Ducat
“You’re slipping badly,” said Rupert Priggley, scoffing scones and butter in Carolus’s sitting-room next day. A second murder, and you’re still clueless.”
“Not quite,” said Carolus.
“But what are you doing about it? It’s all very well, Sir, but I’ve staked a lot of money on your solving this one. And you seemed to have reached a dead end.”
“There’s nothing more I can do just now.”
“That’s just rank defeatism. Here you have a homicidal madman starting on a career of slaughter, and you say there’s nothing you can do. You’re a disappointment, Sir. A mere theorist. Why can’t we get him red-handed?”
Carolus shook his head.
“I’ve got a job for you, though,” he said, and Priggley became attentive at once. The blasé youth was, after all, and eager schoolboy under his appalling manner. “I want you to go to each of the better sweetshops in Newminster. Resist the temptation to stuff yourself, and find out everything you can about recent sales of two-pound boxes of Windsor chocolates. There can’t be very many. If you can trace one to anyone out at Mincott, so much the better. Will you do that?”
“It’s painfully corny, this sort of thing,” said Rupert Priggley, lighting a cigarette. “But I suppose I’ll have to do it.”
“And for heaven’s sake try to produce some tact from somewhere. Don’t talk to shopkeepers as though you found it rather irksome to speak to them at all.”
“I shall, of course. But I’ll manage an act. Suppose it reaches the headmaster’s ears.”
“It won’t if you don’t shew off about it.”
“What are you going to do meanwhile?”
“Think,” said Carolus.
“Oh god, Sir, but this is where we came in. Think! It’s Sherlock Holmes with his dreary old fiddle and hypodermic. It’s every phoney detective conceived by man—or woman. While lesser folk rush round trying to prevent murder, little clever-pants sits back and says ‘Let me think.’ Then he jumps to his feet, screams ‘Eureka!’ and has the most unsuspected person arrested. Can’t you do better than that?”
“What would you like me to do?”
“Something really unusual. Fail, for instance. That would be something. Choose the wrong man. Or do a bit of shooting or poisoning yourself. That would rouse ’em.”
“I think you’re quite the unpleasantest pupil I’ve ever had. Go home and read history.”
Alone Carolus tried, in fact, not to think about Mincott at all. He picked up The Times crossword puzzle, and in a few minutes the two deaths and the threats of more, the meanness or avarice, spite or madness which had produced them were all forgotten, as he sought for ‘old soldier who was in danger of being smothered’ in six letters. Carolus had this faculty of changing the object of his concentration as easily as he changed his shoes.
He was interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Stick, his housekeeper.
“There’s a man at the door who says his name is Swillow,” she told Carolus.
“Oh, yes? Shew him in, will you, Mrs. Stick?”
“He’s not a proper person to come in your house, Sir. He’s Been Drinking.”
“Lucky man. Shew him in.”
“Swillow. Isn’t that the name of the housekeeper found dead out at Lady Pipford’s?”
“It is, Mrs. Stick. This is the widower.”
“I thought as much,” said Mrs. Stick darkly.
“Then . . .”
“It’s no good. I shall have to Speak!” burst out Mrs. Stick. “We can’t go on like this, Sir––not Stick and me can’t. It’s all right; you needn’t worry about the man waiting. Stick’s got his eye on him. He won’t get any of the silver, whatever else he gets. But it’s the disgrace. I don’t know whatever people will say when they know we work in a place that’s always mixed up with murder and people of all sorts coming at all hours of the day or night. Look at this one now. Anyone could see that he’s the Worse for Drink. No, Sir, we can’t go on. I’m sure if it wasn’t for your larking about with murder Stick and me couldn’t want a better place. But people talk, and before long my sister will get to hear.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister, Mrs. Stick.”
It seemed to give Mrs. Stick no pleasure that she had.
“She’s married to a gentleman in the Undertaking. Most respectable people, they are, living in Battersea. If it was to get to her that I was working in a place where there was all this crime and police and that, it would mean the finish. I am sure I could never want a better place if only you’d be satisfied with the teaching. But there you are. You never will be, and we don’t know who’s coming to the door next, with the people opposite watching through the blinds. I’m sorry if I’ve said more than I ought, Sir, but I had to speak.”
“Yes, Mrs. Stick. Now . . .”
“I suppose this man will have to come in, if you want it, but don’t forget I’ve told you. He’s not in a Fit State.”
Swillow, when he lurched in, seemed sober enough to Carolus. He emitted a grunt that might have been a greeting—it sounded like ‘eeing’––and sank into a chair.
Carolus offered him cigarettes, to which he said “Um”, which might have been intended as an affirmative, since he accepted one. The minutes began to pass while Swillow smoked in silence and Carolus waited.
“Cold,” said Carolus without securing a reaction, then briskly: “Did you come in by bus?”
“Ah,” retorted Swillow.
“I take it you’ve got something to tell me?”
There was no reply whatever to that, and once more a silence fell.
Suddenly Swillow gave voice.
“It was them chocolates,” he said, and overcome by this eloquence relapsed again.
“Carolus knew better than to ask questions or to break Swillow’s train of thought by seeking elucidation of what was already said.
“She knew they was there, locked up,” came next, and finally, after another silence, “She said she’d have ’em if ever the cupboard was left unlocked.”
It did not seem that there was any more. Swillow stood up, and Carolus watched him making slowly for the door. Before opening it he turned and repeated because the calf he had already given his wife.
“I told her not to eat so many sweets,” he said.
Then he went. But he was not the last visitor Carolus had that evening. An hour later the front doorbell was audible, and once more Mrs. Stick came into the room.
“Did you order a taxi, Sir?” she asked.
“A taxi? No.”
“There’s a taxi-man at the door with another man.”
Carolus guessed who it was.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll go out.”
As he expected, he found Eddy Bretton in the hall accompanied by a fat but weatherbeaten young man. Ignoring Mrs. Stick’s presence behind him, Carolus invited them to come in.
Eddy Bretton began talking at once.
“It’s about what you said the other night. Remember? About Darryl Montaccord. You said he was murdered. Well, I’ve been thinking”
“See, I don’t want to get mixed up in it. And I don’t want Poppy mixed up in it either. But there’s a couple of things I know I think I ought to tell you. And Bert Withers here knows something which may have to do with Mrs. Swillow, if she was done for, too.”
“Why haven’t you gone to the police.”
“For one thing, I don’t like poppers. Never have. My old dad used to say, ‘Never trust a copper.’ And he was right. Nasty, creeping lot. They’d sell their own grandmothers. When I heard you was finding out about this, I thought I’d far rather tell you the little bit I know than tell it to any of them creepers. Bert says the same. So does Poppy. She’s got her head fixed on the right way, and she said, ‘If you know anything, tell Mr. Deene,’ she said. So I’ve come along. It may be nothing, or it may be a lot.”
“Good. Have a drink and go ahead.”
“I did go to the dance that night. For a time, anyway. Poppy and I got there about nine o’clock, and was there for a couple of hours. But some time about quarter past eleven my partner from the garage comes in and says I’m wanted on the ’phone. See, the garage is almost next door to the dance-hall. I said who was it, and he said he didn’t know, but he thought it was a taxi job. I said, hell, couldn’t he do it, because I was having a fine time at the dance and didn’t want to take the car out again. He said, no, whoever it was had asked particularly for me. So I left Poppy a minute and went next door. It was Jason Pipford on the ’phone, and he was speaking from Mincott House.”
Carolus gave only a curt nod to this, knowing the inadvisability of shewing too much surprise or interest.
“He said would I come and drive him up to London immediately. Well, I couldn’t very well say no, could I? I do all their work, repairs and taxi. So I said, all right, I’d come up. I went back to the dance-hall and told Poppy to go home on her own. I had to do a job. Then I went.
“I waited in the drive for about five minutes, then he came out. He was in his coat and with a suitcase in his hand. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘I’m ready and I don’t want to waste time.’ On the way I asked him when he’d come down. He said that evening. He’d only arrived about ten minutes before ’phoning me. I suppose he’d come on the last train to Newminster, which is due in next at 10.40, and taken a taxi from the station out to Mincott.
“He scarcely spoke again all the way up to London, and I wasn’t in a talking mood. I got into his flat in Bloomsbury, dropped him there and came hell-for-leather home.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“That’s the funny part.”
Carolus knew did something unwelcome was coming now. Whenever he heard the word ‘funny’ used about anything connected with one of his cases he felt an instant distrust. It had been applied to everything, from the grimmest of horrors to the mildest coincidence.
“Lady Pipford called Poppy in and asked her if it was me who had driven Jason up, and Poppy said she supposed so because I’d been called out of the dance on a job. ‘I don’t want it known that my son was here last night,’ she said. ‘Or he’ll be called to the inquest and waste several days’ time. So will you please see that neither of you mention it? You were at the dance together and then went off for a drive. It doesn’t matter who asks you, that’s what you say.’ You know the way the old girl lays down the law? Doesn’t ask you what you think—just tell you what to do. Poppy said all right she’d tell me. As it happened, I haven’t mentioned to anyone where I’d been, and all they know at the dance-hall was that I’d been out on a job. So it was all right.
“Then, when Poppy thought it was all, Lady Pipford asked if she intended to marry me, and she said she supposed so. ‘Let me know when it’s arranged,’ she said, ‘because I should like to give you both a nice wedding present.’ ”
“What has made you tell me this now?”
“It was what you said about murder. I thought that if it was found out after that Jason had been down here that night—as it could be found out if someone saw him on the train or at the station, or his taxi-driver from Newminster remembered—then Poppy and I could get into trouble for not speaking out. So I thought I better tell you.”
“Jason Pipford himself said nothing about keeping your mouth shut?”
“Not a word. That’s what surprised me when I thought of it afterwards. It was only Lady Pipford who said that.”
“Is that all you want to tell me?”
“There’s one other thing. When I got up to the house that night I switched my lights off and waited for Jason. When I heard him opening the door I switched them on again to shew him the way across. As I did so I saw someone coming round from the back of the house—a woman in a raincoat.”
“You recognized her?”
“Well, not absolutely to swear on it, though I’m pretty certain. It was old Miss Crick.”
“You saw nothing except that she was coming round from the back of the house?”
“That’s all. As soon as I put my lights on, she dodged back again. ”
“That would have been about twenty to twenty-five past eleven?”
“Must have been.”
“Very interesting. Thank you.”
“Now you tell him yours, Bert.”
Bert, it seemed, was shy. He rolled a little in his thick suit and collar-and-tie and there was sweat on his red face.
“It may be nothing,” he said uncomfortably.
“Never mind. Go on and tell him.”
“I am a postman,” he announced. “I deliver to Mincott House and the cottages down the road from the van. Parcels only.”
He looked disconsolately at Carolus.
“Go on. Tell him what you told me.”
“It’s about Mrs. Swillow. On the day before she Went I took her a parcel. Only, because there was no one in when I got to her cottage, I took it up to the house and went round to the back to give it her. That’s all, really.”
“Go on. Tell him what she said.”
“She came to the door herself. I said, ‘There’s a parcel for you, Mrs. Swillow.’ ‘For me?’ she said. She seemed ever so surprised. Then she looked at the writing and saw it was from London. ‘I must open it,’ she said, ‘and see what it is and who’s sent it.’ Which she done.”
“And what was it?” asked Eddy Bretton, feeding Bert his stooge line.
“Chocolates,” said Bert. “It was a nice box of chocolates.”
“Did you notice what brand?” asked Carolus.
“Yes. Forkinson’s Royalty. One pound box. Mrs. Swillow was very pleased with them. Quite excited, she was. Then she saw the card with them. ‘Why, they’re from Miss Lanie,’ she said.”
“She always called Mrs. Montaccord ‘Miss Lanie’,” put in Eddy.
“ ‘Isn’t that nice,’ she said. ‘I suppose its because of the Upset. She thought I’d like something. I must pop these away for now,’ she said, and never offered me one.”
Carolus looked at his notes.
“When would they have been posted in London to reach here that day?”
“Any time the day before.”
“Since these arrived on the Sunday morning, and Mrs. Montaccord only left for London on the Thursday morning, she must have been fairly prompt about it.”
“I don’t know,” said Eddy. “She’d have plenty of time. I finished her car about eleven, and she left straight away. She would have been in London by lunch-time. She had all the afternoon to do it.”
“Yes. That’s true. Well, thank you for telling me that. It may prove to be most interesting. Have another drink.”
The two young men accepted this, and Eddy became rather voluble.
“I told him you want to hear about it. We’d heard she was poisoned in a chocolate, so I thought anything about chocolates might have to do with it.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Course, it may not have,” conceded Eddy. “Only I thought you ought to know . . .”
Perceiving that they were heading towards infinite repetition, that bugbear of all who seek information from the kindly and talkative, Carolus put in a question on another topic.
“What do you know of Mr. Boater,” he asked.
“Likes A Drop,” said Eddy at once. “He’s in the Bull every night till closing time, and after that a proper nuisance to anyone he thinks has got Anything in the house. If he knows there’s a bottle of whisky anywhere and he can get in, he’ll stay to all hours telling stories about how he won the war and whatnot.”
“Is he generous?”
“’Bout the same as everyone else. I don’t say he’s generous, but he’s not known for being mean. Stands his whack, in other words. They say he used to go up to the house a lot boozing with Darryl Montaccord.”
“A lot ?”
“So they say. They say one night he won over a fiver from Darryl at cards, but never got his money.”
“I didn’t know Darryl drank very much.”
“You didn’t? He was too mean to buy it, mind you. But if he could pinch Lady Pipford’s, he would. She kept it all in the cellar, but he must have got at it sometimes, because when Poppy came to go through his luggage after he was dead she found four bottles of Lady Pipford’s sort of whisky hidden away in one of them. Oh yes, he liked his liquor all right, when it didn’t cost him anything.”
“While we’re talking about your local characters, tell me what you think of Mr. Bunt.”
“Old Bunt? He’s all right. He moans a lot and says how hard done by he is and that he’d never have bought the business if he’d have known and that, but he’s all right. Good dart-player. His trouble is he has never really Got On. His brother owns a metal workshop—electroplating and about—over at Wickleigh, and it makes Bunt feel small. ”
“Carolus made a note.”
“Electro-plating? You’re sure?”
“Quite sure. I’ve taken jobs there. The Welsh do you want to know about?”
“What are you going to tell me about the Vicar and his wife?”
“Oh, them. Well, nothing really. They’re always hard up. It’s very little money, and he’s not allowed to do anything with that big house. They say he owes money everywhere, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
“Is he popular?”
“Not like the last one we had. He did a lot for the place. Boy Scouts and that. He started the Boys’ Club, too. Used to take them camping and that. He was thought a lot of. But there was some trouble—I never heard the details—and this one came. He’s quite liked, I think, but he’s too breezy and brotherly like for my taste. He can’t help it—being hard up, of course—but the last one had a private income, which made a difference.”
“How long has he been here?”
“Eight years or more. Must be.”
“And he’s still the new man?”
“Well, you see, the last one was very much liked . . .”
“Yes, yes. I’m most grateful to you both for coming.”
“That’s all right, Mr. Deene. And if you can keep Poppy and me out of it you will, won’t you?”
“I’ll do my best,” promised Carolus and watched them leave the room.