Dead for a Ducat
Carolus was surprised, next day, by a telephone call from Lady Pipford.
“Would you,” she asked almost cooingly, “lend me the Sticks for an evening? I want to give a little dinner-party here.”
“But my dear Margaret . . .”
“I know what you’re going to say. People will be scared. That’s exactly why I want to do it. To re-establish confidence, as it were. And if your Sticks have sole charge of everything and buy all they need for the occasion themselves and do not allow anyone near the food, it will be impossible for the most timorous guest to feel he is bidden to eat in the Chamber of Horrors.”
“Really, I’m rather sick of this nonsense. Darryl shot himself, and then poor May Swillow committed suicide or was poisoned—two deaths that might happen anywhere. Now I see people passing the house almost afraid to look up at it, as though it were the Red Barn. It’s my home Carolus, and I’ve every intention of living here for the rest of my life, long after these wretched deaths are forgotten. So I want to fumigate these rumours by asking a number of people to dinner.”
“I don’t think it’s a very good plan, Margaret. But I’ll certainly ask Mrs. Stick, and if she is willing to do it, I have no objection.”
“How stuffy you sound! It will clear the air, don’t you see? And it will amuse me to watch them sitting and tasting to see if they can detect anything strange.”
“Now you’re exaggerating. No one will give it a thought.”
“When Mrs. Stick was clearing away the luncheon plates Carolus tackled her. He tried to make the invitation sound flattering to Mrs. Stick, but it seemed to put her in a fluster of doubt.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Where those murders happened? I am sure Stick and me don’t want to get mixed up in anything of that sort. Of course I should like to oblige Lady Pipford, but then there’s this poor woman being poisoned to be thought of. Fourteen, you say? Oh, I could do it all right, or Stick and me could easy enough. When we were with Mr. Justice Sheers we often had to cook for twenty, but I can’t help feeling I should be stepping into a dead woman’s shoes.”
“Nonsense, Mrs. Stick. It’s just for one night.”
“Oh, I know, and we should be glad to, I’m sure, if it wasn’t for This Other. You say Lady Pipford wants to give this dinner-party to put all that behind her, as it were, and I can well understand that. But what would my sister say if she got to hear I’d cooked the dinner in a house of death like that? I don’t know what to say, I’m sure. I’ll have to see what Stick thinks about it, and let you know.”
“Very well, Mrs. Stick.”
“I’m not saying I shouldn’t like to do a big dinner again, because you never have more than the four or five, do you? But it’s the thought of all that’s happened. I’d use nothing from there—not even the salt and pepper. Still, we shall have to see. It’s not something you can say right off. I’ll talk it over with Stick. If we can See Our Way we will.”
It was not until that evening that Mrs. Stick decided.
“Stick and me will be willing, Sir,” she told Carolus. “Only there mustn’t be anyone else to help, that’s all. Stick can wait at table—he’s done it before. I don’t want anyone running round my feet when I’m trying to cook, and then we can be sure there’s Nothing in the food.”
“What about your married sister, Mrs. Stick?” asked Carolus mischievously. “Suppose she hears about it?”
“Well, Sir, things have gone So Far, with you hobnobbing with murderers and policeman half the time, that once more won’t make any difference. I’m sure Stick and me never meant to have anything to do with such things, and the times we’ve talk it over and thought we should have to leave. But there you are. Will you tell Lady Pipford, then?”
A few days later Carolus was jubilantly hailed by Mr. Gorringer as they came out of chapel.
“I hear we are to be fellow-guests on Thursday,” he said. “A little dinner-party to mark the end of your mysteries, my dear Deene. A splendid idea, as I told Lady Pipford. We shall be shewing a solid front, I feel. Let us lay the ghost of all this trouble once and for all.”
“Unfortunately the ghost, if there is one, is not likely to be laid so easily until the murderer is discovered.”
“Now, now, now, Deene. Let’s give no more thought to murderers. A morbid subject at the best of times. Let us rather look forward to a convivial evening at Mincott House. Though I must say,” he added more soberly, “you bachelors are to be envied. My wife has already insisted on a visit to her couturière. . . .”
“Her what ?” Carolus could not resist asking.
“Ah, I forget you’re not a modern-language man. In plain words, her dressmaker. I fear me some sartorial innovation. It seems that for occasion of this kind we must appear en grande tenue. I was wondering whether, perhaps, your excellent motor-car would accommodate us, my dear Deene? It would certainly add to the amenities of the evening.”
“I’ve promised to take Lance and Phoebe Thomas, but I daresay we can all get in if your wife doesn’t mind her grande tenue being a bit squeezed,” said Carolus.
“You like your joke at the expense of modern languages I see,” returned Mr. Gorringer sourly. “My ears burn when you history and classics men get together. But perhaps I should be well advised to hire a taxi-cab. I did not know our doctor and his wife had been invited. Now I wanted a word with you about the last period on Mondays. . . .”
Mr. Gorringer became immersed in school details.
When Carolus went out to Mincott that afternoon he found Lady Pipford chuckling over the promise of success of her scheme.
“They are all coming,” she said. “Not a backslider amongst them. Dr. Tom and Phoebe. The Gorringers. Micc Scick, the Fleeces and you. Lanie and Roger are bringing Jason and Felicity down.”
“That leaves you with an odd number. You need another man.”
“I know. I’ve asked Mr. Boater.”
“You have ?”
“Well, he is a sort of gentlemen, Carolus, and he’ll behave himself all right on an occasion like this.”
“You may be right.”
“What is so extraordinary is that none of them held back and account of what has happened. It was almost as though they all knew the truth about it and had no more fears.”
“The Sticks will come to you on Thursday morning. Mrs. Stick says she wants all day to prepare. She won’t have anyone to help her.”
“Just as they like. I can get Mrs. Nockings if they want someone to wash up and be useful.”
“No, no, my dear Margaret. You don’t know on what dangerous ground you’re treading. It appears that long ago, in the incredibly far past of Mrs. Stick’s youth, she walked out with Nockings.”
“Really? A romance?”
“She speaks very bitterly of him now. I think he had better be told to keep out of the way that day.”
“He won’t like it. If there’s one thing that Nockings hates, it’s being out of the way. Still, I’ll tell him. And his wife. And Swillow. The Sticks can have the place to themselves.”
Carolus left her to drive into the village. He wanted to ask a few questions of Monty Boater. Hs knock at the cottage door was answered by Boater himself, who looked red-eyed and bad-tempered, as though he just been woken from a heavy afternoon’s sleep after a good deal of mid-day drinking.
“Come in,” he said grimly, “I was just brewing a cup of tea.”
They sat in uncomfortable chairs facing one another, and Boater gave a long, liverish yawn. Carolus guessed that he would remain fuddled and sleepy till he had swallowed a few cups of hot tea, so waited for the kettle to boil before saying anything. When Boater had noisily drunk, he himself became more communicative.
“Believe it or not, the old girl’s asked me out to dinner,” he said. “I was never so surprised in my life. It reminded me of an occasion in Rangoon.”
Carolus decided to seize on this.
“What was that?”
Monty Boater look at him viciously with his red-rimmed eyes.
“Oh, just an occasion in Rangoon, he said.”
“So you’re going on Thursday?”
“Yes. I’ll get my dinner jacket out of moth-balls. It will amuse me to see you all on your best behaviour.”
“Won’t you be?”
“You never know what I’ll be. The Bishop of London, old Winnington Ingram, used to say to me, ‘Monty,’ he used to say, ‘you’re unpredictable.’ And he was right.”
“Yes. Now I have to ask you about something which may be hard to explain.”
“You thought I’d find it hard to explain myself when you met me in the drive of Mincott House the other night didn’t you? But it wasn’t”
“No. This is a little less simple. On the Monday after May Swillow’s death you were seen to go up to Mincott House at about half-past ten and make your way to the boiler-room. You went in and closed the door and remained there for a while, after which you left the grounds presumably to go home. Is that just as easy to explain?”
Monty Boater look angry. His puffy cheeks flushed and his voice was raised as he answered.”
“It dam’ well would be,” he said. “Just as easy, if I meant to explain it. But I don’t see why the hell I should, Deene. Who are you to cross-examine me about my movements?”
“I am a dabbler. An amateur. And I’m the first to admit it. There’s not the slightest reason why you should tell me anything, if you don’t want to. I thought you rather prided yourself, though, on being able to explain incidents.”
“Being able to is another matter. How can it possibly help you to clear up the mystery round these murders to know why I went to the boiler-room? Answer me that.”
“I don’t know. It’s just that one simply cannot afford to have unexplained occurrences and a case like this. If you had put your hat at the top of a telegraph post I should still have wanted to know why you had done it.”
“I see. Well, as it happens, there’s no very great mystery about this. If it will satisfy your curiosity and stop you asking questions I don’t mind telling you. Only when you’re satisfied that it has no bearing on the case you must keep it to yourself. Is that agreed?”
“It was like this. Old Darryl and I used to use that boiler-room pretty often during his last few months. Bit of a gamble. Drop of Scotch. We both liked a game of cards, but couldn’t play when the old girl was around. As you know, she’s a night bird. Never in bed before twelve, and sometimes the small hours. We tried playing up in his room, but it’s a bore to have to keep your voice down all the time. So old Darryl thought of the boiler-room. Nice and warm. Cosy. Good light. We took to playing there.”
“Did Nockings know?”
“I daresay. He never actually came in while we were playing, but once or twice we caught glimpses of him snooping around. He didn’t say anything—to us, at any rate.”
“Still, I don’t quite see why this should bring you back to the place.”
“No. To tell you the truth, Deene, old Darryl had three or four bottles of whisky cached in that boiler-room. There was a cavity under one of the flagstones.”
“Three or four bottles? How did he get hold of them?”
“I told you old Darryl was no fool. He wasn’t. He knew his onions. There were no flies on old Darryl. He was up to snuff, all right. He could tell you a thing or two. He wasn’t to be caught with chaff. He didn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He knew a hawk from a handsaw. He . . .”
“Yes, yes. Well?”
“He had a key of the wine-cellar,” said Boater finally.
“Had he indeed? So that’s where he got his whisky.”
“That’s right. Lady P. would never give it to him. So old Darryl kept his own little cellar under the floor of the boiler-room.”
“Where did he keep that key?”
“In his pocket. Treasured it. Used to say it was the most valuable thing he possessed.”
Carolus watched Boater narrowly. “It was not among the contents of this pocket when he died,” he said.
“Wasn’t it, by Jove? But I wonder what dirty dog has got hold of it.”
“I wonder, too.”
“Don’t look at me, Deene. I’ve never had it for a moment. Even when old Darryl was alive. I wouldn’t raid Lady P.’s cellar.”
“No, but you were prepared to raid Darryl’s, weren’t you?”
“That’s different. He put that whisky there for him and me, you might say. Anyway, when I got there the cupboard was there. Not a sausage. Every bottle gone. I don’t know whether old Darryl had packed them. . . .”
“Yes, he had. They were found among his things.”
“I thought as much. Old Darryl knew what was what. He could tell you which side his bread was buttered. He didn’t need to ask which way the wind blew. He put the saddle on the right horse. He had an eye to the main chance. . . .”
“Quite,” said Carolus firmly.
“So now you see why I went to the boiler-room that night and came away empty-handed.”
“I also know, if your details are correct, that somewhere, in someone’s possession now, is a spare key to the wine-cellar.”
“Yes. I suppose so. Awkward, but. I remember once . . .”
But Carolus had said good-bye and left the cottage before that memory could be recalled.
He decided to take his own security measures, though, with respect to the dinner-party on the following Thursday, and that evening he is interviewed Mrs. Stick.
“Have you seen Lady Pipford about the menu?” he asked.
“Yes. It’s all arranged, Sir. I’m going to do a nice cream-of-celery soup to start with cruttons . . .”
“Cruttons, Mrs. Stick?” asked Carolus, honestly puzzled.
“Squares of fried bread,” said Mrs. Stick, a little surprised by such ignorance. “Then fillets of sole Colbert. That’s with a pat of parsley butter on each. Tournedos. Then roast partridge with game potatoes and salad. A nice chocolate soufflé to finish. It isn’t what I call a very satisfying dinner, but there’ll be plenty of everything. I’ll see to that.”
“It sounds excellent. Simple and seasonable. What I want to do is to supply the wines.”
“Mrs. Stick did not at first welcome this idea.”
“There’ll be the Expense . . .” she said.”
“We can manage it out of stock, I think. I want to make a little present to Lady Pipford, and I’m sure I can persuade her to agree. We’ll take up a dozen each of the Amontillado, the Montrachet for the sole, Saint Émilion for the tournedos and Chambertin for the partridges. I’m not going to take Champagne. If you think they’ll want a Sauterne with the sweet, we can give them the Château Rieussec. Then, with the coffee, some of the old Spanish brandy my uncle sent me.”
“I don’t suppose there’s one of them would appreciate any of them, Sir,” said Mrs. Stick severely.
“Oh yes, Dr. Tom and Phoebe will. So will Lady Pipford and her daughter, and perhaps her daughter’s fiancé. The headmaster will say he does, and Mr. Boater will enjoy them, even if he can’t distinguish much. At any rate we shall know the wines are all right.”
“Mrs. Stick nodded.”
“Indeed yes, Sir. I hadn’t thought of that. Of course it will be best. I’ll tell Stick to see about it.”
“I shall have lunch out on Thursday, so that you can have the whole day up there.”
“Very well, Sir. I hope I don’t run into that Nockings. The nasty cunning thing.”
“I don’t think you will. Lady Pipford has given orders that no one is to go to the kitchen except you and Stick.”
“That’s Something,” Mrs. Stick agreed, and left Carolus to his mixed and apprehensive thoughts.