Dead for a Ducat
Carolus, with Lance and Phoebe Thomas, was the first to arrive, and found Lady Pipford wearing an oyster-coloured dress and a good many diamonds.
“I’ve just been out to the kitchen,” she told Carolus. “What treasures your Sticks are! You must never lose them.”
“Yes, Mrs. Stick is a good cook,” admitted Carolus.
“Jason and his wife came into the room, Jason wearing a dinner-jacket as though it were a uniform and Felicity looking awkward in plum-colour. There had been, apparently, some slight misunderstanding with Lanie and her fiancé which Felicity seemed unable to forget.
“It isn’t as though we asked them to drive us down,” she was soon saying to Lady Pipford while Carolus at a nod from his hostess poured out the Amontillado. “I mean, they offered quite of the own accord. I said to Lanie when she asked me, on the telephone, “If you’d rather we went down by train we can just as well . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” said her mother-in-law pacifically.
“Oh, I don’t worry about it,” said Felicity. “It’s not worth worrying about. But it seems so extraordinary to make a remark like that when we only kept them waiting five minutes. ‘Would you rather we hired a car?’ I asked her, but she wouldn’t hear of that. So I offered not to come at all. ‘I shouldn’t mind,’ I said, ‘going home in a taxi while you go to Mincott.’ It really might have been better.”
“Oh no, dear,” said Lady Pipford.
“I do dislike being where I’m not wanted. It made the journey down so difficult. I offered to get out of the car and come on as best I could, but she said that wouldn’t do.”
Carolus, observing, saw Jason come across and whisper savagely to his wife, “Let it drop, can’t you?” His expression was murderous, and though he had some of Carroll’s sympathy for it, it was a revelation in the precise and chilly Jason.”
“I don’t want to go on talking about it,” said Felicity. “I’d much rather forget all about it. But a thing like that comes as such a shock from one’s sister-in-law. I said, ‘Anyhow we can get back on our own tomorrow and shan’t have to trouble you again.’ I mean, no one likes to feel they’re a trouble to people . . .”
She was interrupted by the entrance of Lanie with Roger Settle. They looked as though they were going to an expensive nightclub. Lanie introduced Roger Settle to Lance and Phoebe.
“Do you play golf?” asked Dr. Tom to break the silence.
“Not actuallah,” said Roger Settle.
“That’s a pity. We’ve got rather a good club here. You live in London, I suppose?”
“Very nice,” said Phoebe. “I’ve always liked Knightsbridge.”
“Rallah?” said Roger Settle.
“Have you any theory about these two deaths?”
“Definitelah. Sex maniac.”
“Sex maniac?” repeated Phoebe incredulously.
“Certainlah. Quite common. Read about them.”
“But really,” began Phoebe. At that moment, however, she was interrupted by greetings from Mr. and Mrs. Gorringer, who had bid a ceremonious good evening to Lady Pipford and, knowing everyone present, were making a circuit of the guests.
“Did my ears deceive me?” asked Mr. Gorringer. “Or did I catch the word maniac? If so, we are treading on forbidden ground. No talk of murder tonight, but allégresse, gaieté de cœur !”
Beside him his wife gave expression to his words. She was a tall woman, and at forty-five would have been almost handsome if it were not for the watchful, over-alert expression on her face as she waited for a chance to be funny.
“No talk of murders?” she said now. “What a shame! I do like a nice cosy chat over bloodstains. A bit of gossip about gore.”
The headmaster laughed heartily, and the two passed on.
Then Missed Crick entered. She wore . . . but could it be true? Carolus asked. She wore what could only be described as a costume for the first production of an Ibsen play. Out of it her brown and scrawny neck and muscular old arms protruded in a rather unfeminine way.
“I’ve left it in the hall,” she was heard to say to Lady Pipford. “A bottle of my rose-hip syrup. What a gathering! Where’s the Vicar?”
“He hasn’t come yet, said Lady Pipford. “He and Mr. Boater are our only absentees. But it’s early yet. Do make Carolus give you a glass of Sherry.”
“Do you think I ought?” asked Miss Crick inevitably. She was soon sipping as she looked round for a victim. She wanted to talk.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fleece arrived. The Vicar looked as though he had to clamp his arm firmly to his side to prevent him slapping everyone on the back as he made his greetings. His wife followed him with fussy qualifications of his more outrageous sallies.
“My dear Lady Pipford! This is indeed a joy!” he cried at the pulled at the hand of his hostess. “Splendid to see you your good hospitable self again, after all our troubles. We’re to forget them, eh? Let joy be unconfined, what?”
“He doesn’t forget your Loss,” said Mrs. Fleece.
The Vicar was passing on.
“Our Æsulapius!” he yelled to Dr. Tom. “Glad you can spare time from packing ’em and dosing ’em to come out to a simple village gathering. You kill ’em off and I’ll bury them!”
“He really hates conducting funerals,” confided Mrs. Fleece.
“The headmaster himself!” bellowed the Vicar, continuing his round. “And his good lady! We’re all agog, you know. We rustics love scholarship and wit in our midst. We await the bon mots, Mrs. Gorringer. We expect to be enlightened, headmaster! We’re country yokels here, remember.”
“We still keep in touch,” avowed Mrs. Fleece.
“Miss Crick! What a pleasure to meet where no parochial business claims our attention. Jason, my dear fellow, and Mrs. Jason. How well you both look! How is the sun and heir? Lanie! What a joy! And this is the Mr. Settle we’ve heard so much about. I trust I’m going to have the pleasure of pronouncing?”
“Selwyn dear, it’s not official yet,” warned Mrs. Fleece.
“And our Deene!” shouted the Vicar. “Still looking for clues, eh? Still using the microscope? What a game! What a game! Got your eye on all of us, I’ll be bound. Suspects to a man! I can almost feel the gyves upon my wrists!”
“He doesn’t mean a word of it,” said Mrs. Fleece, almost apoplectic with worry.
Chuckling at his own jocularity, the Vicar subsided for the moment as he accepted a glass of Sherry.
Mrs. gorringer appeared to be restive. While Mr. Fleece had taken the floor she made no contribution to the general conversation, though her husband from close at hand was loyally ready to laugh. It began to look as though she would be reduced to waiting till dinner was nearly over and she could place her serviette corner-wise on her head, seize a knife to serve as sceptre, pucker her face and say “Queen Victoria!” to her admiring spectators, a little piece of mimicry which never failed in its effect.
However, rival humorists were stilled for a moment as, in an old and fraying dinner-jacket, his face scarlet but his stiff shirt scrupulously starched, Monty Boater entered. He swayed politely towards Lady Pipford, said good evening to her, and waved a general greeting to the room. He could not have been described as drunk except by a police doctor examining a motorist, but he was very, very happy.
“I remember a night like this in Mysore,” he told Miss Crick.
“Yes?” Miss Crick encouraged him.
“Well, a night like this,” said Mr. Boater, quickly deflated.
The conversation was now vigourous. Mrs. Gorringer was telling that story of her daily help with always sent everyone into fits, but the Vicar, remembering the last choir outing, achieved, by the sheer force of his lungs, a bigger audience.
“Mr. Gorringer called Carolus aside. He’s great red ears looked like gross hybiscus blossoms over the shining white of his shirt-front.
“Ah, Deene,” he said quickly. “You are quite easy in your mind, I make no doubt? You have no apprehensions for this evening? We may address ourselves to enjoyment without arrière pensée ?”
“Personally I can’t feel easy about this till it has been entirely cleared up.”
“No? Tut! Dear me! A pity. You have not, I take it, suspicions of anyone present?”
“You do not take my meaning? I ask, but not for my own sake, whether we should be wary? Whether one of our fellow guests may have been wholly or partially responsible for one of the two deaths?”
“I’ve done what I can to guard against any possible danger.”
“Ah! Elusive, I note. Cautious. And who shall blame you? Your methods are of course your own. But forewarned is forearmed. In view of the presence here of my wife I felt . . . I ventured to enquire . . .”
“I simply can’t answer you, headmaster. I have no notion as to what, if anything, may come about.”
“No. No. I quite see. Ever cautious. Ah, I see our hostess is preparing to move. With what verve she does these things. I would give my ears for her gifts. I shall see you anon, my dear Deene.”
The headmaster had been placed at his hostess’s right hand, and beside him is sat Mrs. Fleece. Mr. Boater came next, then Lanie, Carolus and Phoebe Thomas with Jason at the lower end of the table. On Lady Pipford’s left-hand was Dr. Tom, then Miss Crick, Roger Settle, Felicity Pipford, Mr. Fleece and Mrs. Gorringer.
Stick was soon heading round the Potageà Creme de Céleri, as Mr. Gorringer was quick to name it, and there was a lowering of conversational enthusiasm while this was attacked. But Mrs. Fleece was startled by Mr. Boater beside her saying loudly, “They used to make this dam’ well in Helsinki.”
“Really?” she whispered in agonised embarrassment.
“Dam’ well,” reiterated Mr. Boater loudly. “The Finns are no fools. I remember one night when a couple of girls were sitting with me in a cabaret . . .”
Mrs. Fleece looked as though she might jump up and, clapping her hands to her ears, run screaming from the room. No one else seemed to be talking at the moment, and although Mr. Baker spoke loudly, it was exclusively for her. Mr. Gorringer on her other side was talking heavily to Lady Pipford.
“I’m hoping to persuade the Board of Governors . . . I feel that no stone should be left unturned . . . The good name of the Queen’s School, Newminster, depends . . .” he boomed.
There seemed to be no escape for Mrs. Fleece.
“These two floozies, continued Mr. Boater, spoke little English. You know ‘we would like champagne’, ‘my friend knows a good hotel’. That sort of thing . . .”
Desperately Mrs. Fleece looked across at Dr. Tom, but he seemed interested in an account Miss Crick was giving him of how she raised bulbs indoors without using fibre. She looked towards Roger Settle, but he was now concentrating on his Sole Colbert in a most forbidding manner and she could not catch his eye. Her husband was too far away. Flustered, the lines making new contours in her face, she had no remedy but to listen.
“So when it was time to go I said to one of them, ‘It’s a nice night,’ I said, though of course I had no idea what the weather was like outside. She didn’t seem to understand but sat there smiling away . . .”
Mrs Fleece scarcely touched her sole. Then, just as Monty Boater’s story seemed to be ending, she was alarmed to hear her husband’s voice raised above those of his fellow guests.
“Never could stand at the fellow”, he was saying. A flabby, deceitful type. I know they say de mortuis, and all that, but upon my word that fellow Montaccord deserved to be an exception. I don’t want to sound uncharitable . . .”
If only she were near him to point out that her husband could not be uncharitable if he tried, but she was held fast by Mister Boater’s revealing story.”
“I guessed at once what she was up to,” he was saying. “But fortunately I hadn’t anything in my pocket-case worth mentioning. So I just waited without turning the light on. . . .” ”
Oh dear, thought Mrs. Fleece. This is like Dante’s Inferno. How shall I ever escape?
Stick was bringing round the tornedos, but, delicious though it looked, Mrs. Fleece had no appetite for hers. She nibbled and cut nervously while Mr. Boater’s interminable tale went on.
Carolus congratulated himself, meanwhile, on being between Phoebe Thomas and Lanie Pipford. He could keep up an exchange of small talk and at the same time watch the Vicar between Felicity Pipford and Mrs. Gorringer, neither of whom seemed very pleased with the situation. Felicity made dark hints about not being welcome, while Mrs. Gorringer found herself stricken into silence by the Vicar’s bonhomie. She had thought of quite a little witticism about the sole, but Jason Pipford did not promise much as an audience and she had petulantly kept it to herself.
Stick brought in the partridges. Lady Pipford tackled hers serenely, allowing Mr. Gorringer to talk as she did so.
“I feel I have a right to expect the support of the Board of Governors . . .” he was blooming. “Were it simply a matter of personal dignity, there would be no urgency. . . .”
Lady Pipford nodded cheerfully she cut away the other side of her partridge’s breast and popped it in her busy mouth.
Felicity was talking to Roger Settle.
“I shall quite understand if you don’t want to ask me to the wedding,” she said. “I never like to be asked to something when I’m not really wanted. It isn’t as though I am one of the family in more than name. . . .”
“Not?” said Roger Settle politely but shortly.
“I told my husband this evening I was quite willing to stay at home. He didn’t need to feel he had to bring me.”
“Suppose not,” said Roger Settle absently as he dissected his package.”
Mrs. Gorringer had emerged from her sulks to tell her little story about the waiter in the Ostend hotel which, recounted at her own dinner-table, had reduced the entire school staff to long and hearty laughter. Jason Pipford on the left was rather gloomily busy with his partridge, and the Vicar on her right clearly impatient to begin talking again, but Mrs. Gorringer went on steadily to her climax. When she finished, Mr. Fleece gave a hurried staccato laugh and at once recalled a seaside landlady who was given to crystal-gazing. Mrs. Gorringer accepted defeat, and like King Henry I (at least for the evening) never smiled again.
“Oh, but pickled nasturtium seeds are far better than capers!” Miss Crick could be heard saying to Dr. Tom, who nodded as he shovelled into his mouth a fork-load of game chips.
It really seemed to Mrs. Fleece that Monte Boater’s story had finished at last, only just short of a hotel bedroom. She was feeling so relieved that she actually consumed a little of the partridge and sipped the Burgundy. She was just going to smile encouragement to her husband down the table when she heard that terrible voice beside her again.
“But mind you,” Monty Boater was saying, now that he had wholly consumed his partridge, “but mind you, not all like that. I remember a girl in Trieste who actually pawned her bits and pieces to help me get home when I was stranded. Big, flashy type she was with the great swaying hips and a figure with too many curves in it, if you know what I mean. She came up to me in the street as a matter of fact . . .”
Mrs. Fleece’s brief respite which had allowed her to eat a little partridge was clearly over. Like Gray’s cat, “she mew’d to every watery God, Some speedy aid to send”, but “nor cruel Tom nor Susan heard”. She was almost paralysed with embarrassment and terror.
The chocolate soufflé appeared and was popular at least with Lady Pipford and Lanie. Then, with the coffee, Lady Pipford made the little announcement which had come to be expected of her.
“We’re not going to withdraw,” she said. “It’s a silly old custom which I’ve no use for. We’ll smoke with you.” And she lit a cigarette.
Stick was bringing round a bottle, and Carolus recognized the very dark colour of his Spanish brandy. Lady Pipford did not help herself to it, but poured out of glass of Noyau from a bottle beside her.
“Ah yes,” said Mr. Gorringer. “I remember now. You indulge in a sweet liqueur. One taste, I fear me, I can never share with you.”
“Love it,” said Lady Pipford loudly, as she raised her glass. “Buy it by the dozen bottles.” Her words were audible down the table. “No one else likes it, so I’ve given up trying to offer it.”
Then things happened with appalling rapidity.
Carolus was on his feet, upsetting his chair behind him.
“Don’t drink that, Margaret!” he shouted.
But it was too late. Lady Pipford had swallowed her liqueur at a gulp, given an almost simultaneous gasp and crumpled. Her head lay on the table in front of her and one hand splayed out beside it.
Dr. Tom was bending over her in a moment.
“She’s quite dead,” he said at once. “Cyanide of potassium. You can smell it.”
There was a scream from Mrs. Fleece, then for about ten seconds a very terrible silence. Lanie Montaccord rushed to the little figure of the dead woman crying, “Mother! Mother!” and Jason followed her silently. For what seemed a very long time no one else moved or spoke.