Dead for a Ducat
When Carolus told Mrs. Stick he would not be in for his usual cold Sunday evening supper, she seemed rather put out.
“There, and I’ve made a nice game-pie for you. I suppose it will keep, but still . . .”
“I assure you I shall miss it,” said Carolus. “I’m taking what he calls pot luck with the Vicar of Mincott.”
Mrs. Stick stared.
“You’re not going to eat anything out there, are you, Sir? Not with a poisoner loose in the place.”
“Really, Mrs. Stick. That’s a very wild assumption.”
“I only know that Stick’s brother’s a bailiff on a farm at Mincott and says it’s something awful the talk is going round. There’s been two deaths up at the house, and no one knows who will Go next. It’s bad enough your having people here who are mixed up in anything like that, without your going out there eating things that may have arsenic in them.”
“At the Vicarage, Mrs. Stick?”
Carolus thought this was rather a neat piece of parrying, because Mrs. Stick was a staunch churchwoman. But she was equal to it.
“Well, you never know, do you, when it Starts?” she said. “You can’t tell who’s been in the house or where anything comes from. You much better stay at home and have your game-pie.”
“I can’t do that, I’m afraid. The call of duty, as Nockings would say, takes me even to Vicarage pot luck.”
Mrs. Stick turned round sharply.
“Did you say Nockings?” she asked. “That wouldn’t be Sam Nockings, would it?”
“I think that’s his name. Why?”
“I thought he’d left the district years ago.”
“You know him?”
“I ought to. We were Walking Out together once, till I found him out. Is he anything to do with these murders?”
“There is no certainty that there has been a murder, Mrs. Stick. Nockings is the gardener at Mincott House, and a very good gardener, I understand.”
“Oh yes, he’s a good gardener all right,” said Mrs. Stick bitterly. “But I’d like to know what else there is good about him. Mind you, it must be twenty years now, since I’ve so much as set eyes on Nockings, but if he’s anything like what he was then, he’s a nasty, sneaking, underhand brute that would deceive his own mother. I wouldn’t put him past murder, if it’s a murderer you want.”
“You seem to feel very strongly about it, Mrs. Stick.”
“Well, I do. Out all times of the night . . .”
“Really? Even as a young man?”
“True as I’m standing here. I used to say to him, ‘Whenever do you find time to sleep?’ I used to say. But there you are. He was made the creepy sort. Now, if he was to have poisoned that poor woman, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
“I daresay he is one of the suspects.”
“It only shews the kind of person you get mixed up with when you start larking about with one of your crimes, Sir. Now you be careful what you put in your mouth at that Vicarage, and if anything doesn’t taste just write you leave it. I shan’t feel comfortable to your safe back again, upon my word I shan’t.”
Carolus, as a matter of fact, be anyone that the evening whether he would get an opportunity of putting anything into his mouth at all, so long did he sit with the Vicar waiting, presumably, for Mrs. Fleece to prepare the ‘pot luck’. At last he decided that he would not, as he had intended, wait until the Vicar was fortified by food before broaching the matter of his inquiries, but tackle him now.
He opened with a single shot fired with the deadly effect of a trained rifleman.
“Vicar,” he said, “I happen to know that you went up to Mincott House on the night Darryl died.”
Mr. Fleece laughed heartily.
“Oh, excellent!” he said. “First-rate! Where were you on the night of the crime, eh? You do like to bring a little comedy into your investigations, Deene.”
“I’m quite serious.”
“Me? At the house? Oh, come now. I am a quiet old village parson with no time for mysteries. Whatever makes you think that?”
Thus, reflected Carolus, had Miss Alicia Crick at first evaded the issue.
“Mr. Fleece, I am not a policeman. I have no authority to interrogate you. You are entirely at liberty, of course, to refuse an answer, even to turn me out of your house for suggesting this. But with the responsibility of a man desperately looking for the truth in this tangle, I ask you—were you or were you not at Mincott House that night?”
“I was not!” proclaimed the Vicar.
Carolus rose to his feet.
“I am very sorry you should not wish to tell me the truth,” he said. “You were seen there.”
“The lights of a taxi leaving the drive shewed you plainly.”
Mr. Fleece laughed again.
“Ah! Shewed me plainly! But where, my good Deene? Where?”
“Entering the gates.”
“Did they shew me after I’d entered them, may I ask?”
“No. I can’t say they did. The taxi had passed on.”
“I never did enter them!” roared the Vicar, with boisterous triumph. “I was not at Mincott House because I never passed through those gates! You see how easily you can be mistaken? You see how chary you should be of inferring that a man is not telling the truth?”
“You were in the gateway, though?”
“That’s another matter. I was in the gateway. I did not penetrate to the drive.”
“It is a long story,” said the Vicar rather loftily.
“Too long to tell?”
“Better say, too intimate to tell. Private affairs. Not connected with anyone’s death. I don’t propose to enlarge on that.”
“Just as you please, of course.”
Mr. Fleece grew breezy again.
“But you were caught out there, my dear Deene. You were a bit too clever that time. You disbelieved me when I said I had not been to Mincott House, and you see now it was true!”
Carolus said nothing, and Mr. Fleece stopped chuckling and began to move about uncomfortably in his chair.
“As a matter of fact,” he said at last, “I don’t see why you shouldn’t know what I was doing up there that evening.” He made an effort to lower his voice. “Only I don’t want my wife to know. She’s apt to worry about these things.”
“I will certainly not tell her,” said Carolus at once.
“It’s a very simple matter, Deene. £ s. d. The living here is worth just three hundred pounds a year, and the Easter offerings, which total about forty pounds. No more. You can imagine the difficulties. Bella has twenty-five pounds a year from an aunt. But it means we live not merely in penury, but in perpetual anxiety. You find it difficult to imagine, I daresay. People suppose that parsons are comfortably provided for. Nice old houses and so on. Try keeping up appearances on my stipend! It’s a long battle.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Carolus.
“Just at that time things had reached a climax. Tradesmen’s bills! Water! Electricity! Coal! I did not know where to turn. And as I lay in bed that night, it suddenly came to me—I must see Lady Pipford. She had been kindness itself in the past. I could not go on a day longer worrying myself and seeing Bella worry, when the whole thing could be relieved by a cheque from our Lady of the Manor. We had been to tea with her that very afternoon, and she had hinted to me that she guessed there with difficulties and half suggested that I should call on her. All very tactful and indirect, of course, but enough for me together that she was approachable.
“Then, once I had the idea I thought: Why not put it into execution now, immediately? Bella was fast asleep beside me, for although she appears to worry more than I do, she has the faculty of falling asleep very easily. Lady Pipford, I knew, was a late bird, rarely going to bed before twelve, and it was now less than half-past ten. I slipped quietly out of bed and, picking up my clothes, went into the bathroom to dress. When I had done so I listened at the door for a moment, but Bella was still breathing heavily in deep sleep. I was soon on my way up to the house.
“It was a dark, noisy night, and the wind seemed to carry me along. I don’t know how long it took me to walk from the Vicarage, but I seemed to make very good time. Then, when I was only a few hundred guards from the gates, a car passed me, driving towards the house.
“I continued, at first. I thought it might be Swillow bringing the car back or Lady Pipford herself. It did not occur to me that anyone would be calling at the house at this hour. But as I drew nearer I saw that the car had dropped a passenger and was coming out again.
“I was now in a quandary. Whoever it was at the house made my visit impossible. It crossed my mind that it might be the son or daughter coming down unexpectedly late. Even so, I could not speak to Lady Pipford in front of Jason or Elaine. There was only one thing for it: to abandon my approach for tonight and come up in the morning. I turned away, and, as I told you, never entered the gates at all. That is really the whole story”
Carolus seemed to be thinking deeply.
“I should add, I think, that when I saw Lady Pipford later, though sorely vexed and worried by events herself, she was most generous. Most generous. My problems, for the moment at least, are shelved.”
“Then you heard no shot that night?” asked Carolus, ignoring this.
“No. The wind was behind me, of course.”
“Tell me, before you reached the Vicarage on your return, did another car pass you?”
“I can’t remember that.”
“Did you notice that there was a dance going on?”
“I knew there was to be one, but I don’t remember hearing or seeing anything of it.”
Mrs. Fleece appeared just then.
“Shall I bring it in here to the fire?” she asked. “Or light the oil-stove in the dining room?”
“In here, I think,” said the Vicar, to the great relief of Carolus. “We can put the cloth on the card table.”
Carolus could not help wondering what had taken so long to prepare. Those large, nude, greyish boiled potatoes, perhaps. Not surely the beetroot, which was plainly soaked in reddened vinegar, or the round slices of a substance described as luncheon meat, or the cold rice pudding which completed the meal.
Mrs. Fleece called her husband’s attention.
“Selwyn. The cider,” she said in a hushed voice, and the Vicar left the room to return with a china jug from which he half filled their glasses with a cloudy liquid.
“Fall to, my dear fellow,” he shouted to Carolus. “You must be hungry, after all that detection. Let me see you demolish some of this.”
Carolus tried to obey.
“I meant to get corned beef,” said Mrs. Fleece desolately. “But Bunt was out of it.”
“A good thing,” the Vicar pronounced. “Deene had enough of that in his army years, I’m sure. What do you think of our local cider, Deene? A man’s tipple, what?”
It might be, thought Carolus, but only for a man not subject to acidity. However, he managed to swallow half a glassful.
A few moments later he was on his feet.
“I’m most terribly sorry,” he said. “I’ve just remembered I have to see Gorringer at nine o’clock. You and I have been talking too long, Vicar. You will excuse me, won’t you?”
He almost ran from the room and out to his car. How he managed to drive home he never afterwards knew. The road seemed to undulate like a shaken tape in front of him, the hedges to rise to the sky or bow to the ground. He wanted to vomit, but knew that he could not. He was dizzy, and his eyes would not remain in focus.
“Oh God,” he thought. “I’ve been poisoned.”
He managed to pull up outside his front door and reel to the bell. His last thought, before collapsing at the feet of Mrs. Stick, was that at least it wasn’t cyanide of potassium. That was instantaneous.
He came round to the laughing face of Dr. Tom and the very solemn one of Mrs. Stick. “Swallow this,” said Dr. Tom, and Carolus found himself painfully obeying. Thereafter he vomited long, and at last felt a certain relief.
“You silly ass,” said the doctor. “Putting yourself out like that!”
“He was poisoned, that’s what he was,” said Mrs. Stick. “With all respect, Doctor, you could see he was poisoned, and might have died if you hadn’t of given him that Semitic.”
“Was I?” asked Carolus.
“No. You simply ate something that didn’t agree with you. You probably psyched yourself into believing there was poison in it. Poison on the mind, that was your trouble.”
Mrs. Stick was not to be appeased.
“He will go messing about with these nasty cases, doctor, though I’ve begged him a hundred times to let them alone. What else does expect but to be poisoned? I’d like to know. Shall I give him a drop of brandy, Doctor?”
“Can do. And you can give me a whisky-and-soda. Hauling me round here on Sunday evening for this. Where had you been to dinner?”
“At Mincott Vicarage.”
“I think it must have been the cider.”
“Cider and auto-suggestion. You’re all right now, anyway.” Mrs. Stick had left the room. “What is all this at Mincott, Carolus? ”
“Don’t ask me tonight. I’m still pretty much at sea. I’ll come and tell you both when it’s a little clearer.”
“You’re working towards a solution?”
“I think so.”
“And the police?”
“They haven’t a clue. I mean, they haven’t one very important clue which I have. So they are at a disadvantage.”
“They anticipate more murders?”
“I believe so.”
“There’s always a certain danger. I’ve tried to get Margaret Pipford to close the house and go away, but she won’t.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Try to persuade her.”
“I will, though it’s probably hopeless. She’s the most obstinate woman I know.”
When Dr. Tom had gone, Carolus, still feeling rather shaky, went up to bed. He slept badly that night. It may have been the effects of food-poisoning and the emetic, but he felt heavy with a sense of some ugly impending doom. The case as he saw it grew increasingly twisted and inhuman. Other murders he had investigated seemed to have clear, direct motives—these were full of obscurity and deep purpose which made them seem more cruel and cunning. What motive could anyone have for killing May Swillow? Carolus believed he had the answer to that.
He twisted in his bed that night with a slight fever. He saw the people he had been interviewing not as the commonplace inhabitants of an English village or relatives of these, but as creatures with potentialities for evil which made them, in his hot mind, almost satanic. Not one of them, he began to feel, was incapable of the dark sin of murder.
In the distorting fog of insomnia he saw them one by one, as though they were devil-faced sheep he was counting in order to tire his brain. The suspects, he supposed they were, or at all events police suspects. Margaret Pipford herself, for instance, at first so nonchalant and ready for him to investigate, later so secretive and withdrawn, was not she capable of murder? He saw the old face, full of character and courage, which he had known and liked for so long, as that of a Medusa. Then her son, that scientific, cold-mannered man, who had opportunities to obtain poison, who had been in Mincott at the time of Darryl’s death, if not of May Swillow’s, wasn’t he capable of both murders? Carolus had always distrusted that humourless type, whose life was ordered to a rigid system and whose passions, it seemed, were controlled for approved purposes. He distrusted Jason as much as he disliked him.
The breezy Elaine seemed no longer, in these fantastic night thoughts, a downright and ordinary Englishwoman who had made one unfortunate marriage and was now going towards another. She was a woman of purpose, a woman who would stop at nothing to achieve her ends. That strong profile, that sharp, resolute way of speaking—she, if anyone, was capable of killing those who stood in her way. She had been motoring aimlessly up the Great North Road, she said, on the night of her husband’s death, and quite apart from the difficulty of imagining her doing anything aimlessly, this seemed an improbable story.
Then Nockings. When first Carolus had seen him he spoke of usually going to bed at half-past ten, “which is late enough when you’ve got to be up in the morning.” Now it appeared, both from Nockings himself and from all accounts of him, that he was an inveterate somnambule, a creeper and watcher in the small hours. He had been near the house at the time of Darryl’s death, and in it when May Swillow was poisoned. His long, lugubrious face could easily be that of a murderer, and of him alone it was possible to imagine that he had some deep distorted motive for killing May Swillow. In the feverish mind of Carolus, Nockings seemed, in appearance at least, like murderers of the past—Eugene Aram or the Demon Barber.
Or Swillow. What did Carolus, or anyone else, know of the taciturn Swillow? That trap of a mouth, that surliness might conceal motives scarcely credible to a balanced mind. Swillow was a primitive with the dangerous inconsistencies of a primitive. The title of a joseph Conrad short story came unbidden to his mind we thought of Swillow—‘Heart of Darkness’. He could see Swillow as a savage survival, someone perhaps unconsciously but by nature at war with civilized life.
Carolus went on to Poppy Munn. How remote she seemed in this phantasmagoria from the innocent country girl. He thought of the young metropolitan criminals, the Teddy Boys and knife-carrying thugs of the London suburbs, and remembered Poppy saying that the day was past when a girl was a country miss until she had lived in London. There was a hardness in her manner which had at first surprised him and now gave her in his recollection something inhuman. Poppy Munn, he thought on this midnight, Poppy Munn could be a murderess, and a cold and competent one.
Or Boater, for that matter. Boater’s bibulous self-aggrandizement could not be mistaken for bonhomie. Boater was not a ‘good fellow’, and probably never had been. He was a sot, but a determined sot. He could come secretly up to the house—according to Nockings—and went on some errand which he had yet to explain, shut himself in the boiler-room and emerged to reel away between the trees. An unpleasant man, Boater. Whether or not he had been at the house on the night of Darryl’s death, he had certainly intended to go there.
Nor by any means was Miss Crick excluded from the nightmare category of those sleepless hours. With her energy, her sinewy strength, her passion for strange concoctions, she seemed, as Carolus pictured her weatherbeaten face and ungainly vigorous body, as much a potential killer as any of them. He knew that with the light of day and the return to school routine Alicia Crick might seem no more than an ordinary parochial spinster, but tonight the very plants seemed mandrakes which emitted human screams as they were pulled.
And the Fleeces, driven into a corner by the cruel whip of perpetual poverty, were not either of these capable of some desperate act? The noisy Vicar hallooing his triumph over Carolus because, he said, he had not actually passed through the gates of Mincott House that night seemed suddenly an unamiable, a highly unreliable figure. What pains he had taken, when the matter first arose, to account for his absence from the conjugal bedroom? And his wife’s features, contorted by endless anxieties, seemed gnomish now, almost diabolical.
That left Carolus with two men who at least qualified as suspects to one or another of the murders—if murders these had been—Eddie Bretton and Bunt. Bretton at first seemed a commonplace youth, and Poppy had taken pains to present him as a ‘simple rustic type’. But the description did not altogether fit. He had lied readily enough at first about his activities on the night Darryl died and had had a voluble explanation for his lying. As for Bunt, “the evil-hearted grocer,” Carolus remembered, “he crams with cans of poisoned meat The subjects of the King”. Mr. Bunt with his aggrieved manner, Mr. Bunt who had given Nockings chocolates for May Swillow, Mr. Bunt was with the rest of them in that infernal rout.
It was not until the small powers that Carolus slept, and then uneasily.