Dead for a Ducat
When he went out to Mincott again on Sunday morning he found Miss Crick back at Rosemary Cottage. It appeared that Mrs. Nockings was ‘obliging’ Lady Pipford, aided by her sixteen-year-old daughter. He guessed that Miss Crick’s enthusiasm for domestic economy had been too much for the old lady.
“But I filled the breach,” said Alicia Crick. “I held the fort. It’s nice to know one can still be useful at times. Sit down. I’ve just got to run down the garden for a cabbage and a sprig of pennyroyal, and I’ll be with you. Shan’t be a mo.”
Carolus found himself depressed this time by his surroundings. Miss Crick no longer seemed to him a quaint, over-rusticated old party, but a woman with something deep and not readily perceptible in her make-up. Yet he could not tell why. So far as he had observed, her actions were harmless enough.
She came in breezily, set down her trug, and turned to give Carolus her full attention.
“Well now,” she said, “what crime have I committed this time?”
Carolus tried to give his voice and manner all the solemnity of which they were capable.
“Miss Crick, you remember the night of Darryl Montaccord’s death?”
“Did you go out that night?”
“Out? Do you mean out-of-doors?”
“Yes, Miss Crick. Out-of-doors.”
“I may have just popped out somewhere. I can’t really remember.”
“Did you hear the shot which killed Montaccord?”
“Really, Mr. Deene, what a silly question! How should I know? There are so many shots.”
“Were there? That night? Did you hear more than one?”
“I haven’t said I heard any.”
“But did you?”
“May have done. Why?”
“Where were you when it was fired?”
“Oh, I can’t remember that. I’m here, there and everywhere, you know.”
“Very well, then, miss Crick, let me be a little more specific. What were you doing in the garden of Mincott House that night?”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Must we go through all this? I know you were there, and you know you were there, so why do we waste time?”
“You’re a very strange man, Mr. Deene, to come and make such an extraordinary accusation. I wonder what on earth makes you think you have grounds for it?”
“Miss Crick, you were seen, distinctly and indubitably. You were coming round from the back of the house when the driver of a car in front of the doorway switched on his headlights. You tried to dodge away, but you were quite clearly seen.”
Miss Crick managed to smile.
“Oh dear! It does sound incriminating, doesn’t it? Yet it wasn’t, you know. Not really.”
“You were in the garden that night?”
“When the shot was fired?”
“Wouldn’t you like to tell me the whole story?”
“Well, just a jiffy while I nip out to the kitchen and get something On, or I shall have no lunch. I’ll give you a glass of primrose wine to sip while I’m gone. Then I’ll tell you the whole dreadful story.”
Miss Crick pranced out, and Carolus sat with a white liquor untouched beside him, examining the ceiling. It will be lies, he supposed, but they might be revealing lies. He thought grimly that in this work he probably discovered more truth from lies than from the truth itself.
When she came back, Miss Crick seemed particularly cool and cheerful, as though she had had time to compose herself. She smiled brightly to Carolus and talk a hard chair.
“I wanted a root of lovage, she said archly.
“What on earth is that?”
“Lovage. Levisticum officinale. It’s a culinary herb which grows almost wild in Lady Pipford’s garden.”
“You mean you went up there on that particular night to take a root of this herb?”
“Yes. Funny, wasn’t it, that I should have chosen the very night of Darryl’s death?”
Funny again, reflected Carolus.
“But if you wanted a root of this herb, why didn’t you ask Lady Pipford for it?”
“I did. But you know what she is. She said, ‘You must ask Nockings’.”
“And did you?”
“Yes, but he refused. He said there was none to spare, or something of the sort. He resents my interest in the garden. He thinks that no one knows anything about plants but himself. I don’t know how Lady Pipford puts up with it. I told her while staying there helping that there was scarcely a herb in the place. Sage, mint, thyme—but what are those? ‘You must have summer savoury,’ I told Lady Pipford, ‘purslane, orach, tarragon and basil. You’ve no cumin or marjoram—not even a root of fennel. How could May Swillow cook for you without coriander seeds and dill, rampion and tansy? It’s a mystery to me.’ And Nockings, of course, resented the suggestion.”
“But that was after you had asked him for the plant you wanted?”
“Yes, but it was just as bad before. If I brought a few seeds or a jar of potpourri up to Lady Pipford, he took it as a personal offence, and when I asked him for the lovage, he refused.”
“Didn’t you go to Margaret Pipford again?”
“I did. ‘My dear Alicia,’ she said, ‘I never interfere in these matters. I am sorry, but if Nockings says no, there it is. He is a good gardener, and I believe in giving him his own way.’ I asked how he could be a good gardener when he had never grown asparagus peas—most delicious vegetables—or Welsh onions, or sweet cecily or rue or caraway or balm? But Margaret Pipford has no imagination really, and is quite content to go on with the same old foods. So there I was. All that lovely lovage going to waste, and not able to get a root of it.”
“Is lovage lovely?” asked Carolus with some amusement.
“It’s exquisite. It has a sort of smoky taste, like more aromatic celery. It’s such a striking planet, too, with polished leaves and fine long stalks. Its leaves a delicious in soups and stews, or can be snipped up with a pair of scissors and popped in a salad. Then the stalks!”
“What?” asked Carolus.
“Candied, my dear man. Candied. Better than angelica. Oh, it’s a wonderful plant, but I just couldn’t get hold of it. So I decided that night to nip up to the House and pinch a root. Was it very naughty?”
“I have no opinion, Miss Crick. What time did you leave?”
“I left home about twenty to eleven. I reached the house about ten to, I suppose. But an awful thing happened. Just as I was getting near the bed where the lovage is growing, I heard someone singing.”
“Yes. A bass voice. Singing a hymn.”
“For Those in Peril on the Sea,” said Alicia Crick sharply. Then her old voice quavered into music. “You know, Eternal father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave. . . . It’s one of William Whiting’s.”
“And someone was singing it in a bass voice in Lady Pipford’s garden a little before eleven on the night Darryl died?”
“Yes. I was petrified. I hopped behind a bush and waited. It was Nockings. He was coming from the boiler-house. I watched him go past and make off in the direction of his cottage. But I could not move for quite a time. Just as I was collecting myself and making again for the lovage, the second awful thing happened. There was a shot from upstairs. Just one. But it seemed to shake the whole night. And after it silence. I waited, thinking someone would come tearing out of the house or something. But not a movement. Not a sound. Until—it must have been five minutes later—I heard the sound of a car approaching.”
Miss Crick paused.
“You must excuse me a moment,” she said. “I want to see how my vegetable goulash is doing. Have some more primrose wine? Oh, you haven’t drunk that yet. Shan’t be a jiff.”
She rose to her feet with the energy of a schoolgirl and strode from the room. She was back in three minutes.
“It seems to have been quite a night,” said Carolus.
“It was dreadful. I’d long ago abandoned all idea of lovage. All I wanted was to get away. I watched this car come in and stop by the front door. I could hear Jason’s voice asking the taxi-driver how much he owed him, then saying, ‘Rather a lot from the station, isn’t it?’ I couldn’t hear what the taxi-man said, but it turned round quickly and drove off, while Jason went up to the front door and disappeared inside.
Miss Crick now seemed to be in some confusion.
“There’s something else . . .” she said. “Really, I don’t know whether I ought . . . I suppose it’s all right, but I do hate sneaking . . .”
“You saw someone?”
“Yes. As the taxi was leaving, the lights shewed the entrance. And just coming through the gates as it got near, I saw Mr. Fleece.”
“Are you quite sure, Miss Crick? Couldn’t you have imagined that?”
“I’ve tried to think so a dozen times, but no, I’m quite sure. The headlights lit him up. After the taxi had gone I couldn’t see more of him, and waited for him to come into the light thrown by the lamp over the front door. But he never came. I waited at least ten minutes, but there was no more sign of him.”
“You say he was entering as the taxi left. He could have been leaving, I suppose, and have turned round in the light of a taxi.”
“I don’t think so. I had the impression he was striding forward.”
“I waited at least ten minutes for him to appear. Perhaps longer. I couldn’t get through the front gates if he was about. Then, just as I really thought it was safe to go, another car came in, and I recognised it as Eddy Bretton’s. He pulled up by the front door and switched off his lights. It was when he switched them on again that he saw me, I suppose?”
“At last, when he had gone, I was able to make my way home. Dear, I was so thankful. It was a lesson to me, of course. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s lovage, for that matter. I drank a whole glass of strawberry and beetroot cordial when I got in, and thankfully went up to bed.”
“At no time that night did you enter the house?”
“Or hear anything from the house except the shot?”
“Or see anything you have not described?”
“No. I’ve told you the whole sorry story.”
“Did you go up to the house on the day of May Swillow’s death?”
“No. Thank goodness. But you know that when you came to see me the afternoon.”
“Yes. But not until about half-past-four.”
“I hadn’t been out, except in the garden.”
“I see. You’ve given me some valuable information, Miss Crick, if it is all quite accurate.”
“Have a glass of mead before you go? And a savoury hotcake?”
“Thank you. I’m in rather a hurry.”
As he left Rosemary Cottage, Carolus heard the chimes from Mincott church tower turned to a single bell, and knew that Matins was about to begin. He decided to attend, not knowing quite what expected to learn from the occasion, but guessing that several the people connected with the case would be present.
He was not disappointed. He was shewn into his seat by Mr. Bunt, who wore a peculiar black gown with velvet facings.
“I don’t know where I’m going to put you,” he whispered to Carolus in a disgruntled tone. “There’s so many of them reserve their pews, and then don’t come.”
He led Carolus to a corner seat against the wall in a row towards the back from which he could see most of the congregation, though from over their right shoulders, as it were.
The vestry was at the west end of the church, and when the choir and merged blithely singing a hymn and walking sedately in pairs, he saw that Nockings was one of the last pair before the Vicar brought up the rear. But what surprised him was the identity of the gardener’s partner, for it was Swillow, and Swillow had never seemed to Carolus to be of a church-going disposition. However—“Oft in danger, oft in woe!” intoned Swillow cheerfully as they started up the aisle, and Carolus realised that he had a lot to learn about some of the people associated with Mincott House.”
“Lady Pipford was alone in her pew. She looked rather severe this morning, Carolus thought, as though the strain were telling on her. Just behind her sat Mrs. Fleece, fidgeting and scared-looking, watching her husband as though she thought he would make some ghastly blunder, as doubtless she had watched him through every service since their marriage.
But Mr. Fleece was loud and confident, racing cheerfully towards the Te Deum which was sung to the quadruple chant. Everybody seemed impatient to reach the joys of community singing when the four remaining hymns, indicated on an oak-framed board near the pulpit, could be shouted in unison, interrupted only by a brief and snappy sermon from the Vicar.
Just as Carolus recognised Eddy Bretton and Poppy Munn sitting together on the far side of the church, he realised that their Banns were being called. It was for the First Time of Asking, and seemed to send a thrill through the congregation.
But the greatest surprise for Carolus was the sight of Monty Boater in a neat grey suit, looking very much a country gentlemen, and joining discreetly in the singing. Of course, Carolus reflected, English law forbade competition between church and inn, agreeing that licensed premises should not open until Sunday services were almost finished; still he had not, somehow, expected to see Boater here.
Miss Crick had followed Carolus and, arriving late, had been put in a pew behind him.
They were now well into the hymns, those waltz-like sacred songs with which congregations hail the greatest mysteries of religion. The village of Mincott gathered together its vocal abilities to trill gaily. “Three in One and One in three, Ruler of the Earth and Sea!” and everyone looked very pleased about it. It was hard to realize that among the singers was in all probability at least one very cruel, all very mad, or very desperate murderer.
Mr. Fleece preached on good neighbourliness. It was, Carolus heard later, a favourite theme of his.
“Just now, in our little community,” he said when he had warmed to his subject, “we are passing through a crisis which tests us to the full.”
Carolus saw that Mrs. Fleece was positively grimacing with anxiety.
“At such a time,” continued the Vicar, “we must try not to harbour ugly suspicions, not to carry harmful rumours, not to damage faultless reputations and not to think unkind thoughts. It may be there is an agent of evil among us; If so, in due course he or she will be exposed. In the meantime it is not for us to judge, but to think the best of one another and remember the beams in our own eyes before we look for the motes in our brothers’.”
Laudable sentiments, thought Carolus, but not calculated to help him much in the search for the truth.
When it was over and the hosts of Midian had prowled and prowled around to the evident enjoyment of everybody, Carolus sought out Mr. Fleece and asked him whether he could spare him half an hour some time, as there were a few more facts he wanted to clear up.
“Rather!” shouted the Vicar. “Come and take pot luck tonight! After evensong. We shall be delighted.”
Carolus felt his heart sink at the prospect of a cold meal in that gloomy vicarage, but could not offend Mr. Fleece by a refusal.
At the Bull he found several of the congregation, including Monty Boater, already getting the church dust out of their throats. He had some questions he wanted to put to Boater, but decided that this was not the moment he needed. He drove home to lunch feeling he had achieved very little.