Dead for a Ducat, Chapter Eighteen

Dead for a Ducat

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

It was a revelation of the natural authority behind the casual and elusive personality of Carolus that in this crisis he was expected by everyone present to assume control.  Dr. Tom, Mr. Gorringer and Mr. Fleece, all men who in their own worlds were accustomed to giving a lead and being obeyed, now turned to him.
“I think it would be best,” he said, “if we all stay just as we are until the police arrive.  Stick, will you please telephone for them at once?  Explain that Lady Pipford has been poisoned.”
Lanie was crying, and it seemed a strange thing in that self-possessed woman with no nonsense about her.  Mrs. Fleece, too, was making an odd blubbering sound.  Miss Crick did not speak or move, but stared at the dead body as though the sight of it held her hypnotized.  Felicity Pipford looked in awe from one face to another.  She might have been expecting a revelation from them.
“What about . . .?” Dr. Tom glanced at the limp figure so grotesquely bent over the table.  It was clear that it could not be allowed to stay there while thirteen people sat around it.
“Quite all right to move her,” said Carolus.  “It isn’t as though the position matters.  Will you, Lance, and Stick?”
They carried the body of Lady Pipford from the room but this did nothing to relieve the tense and unnatural atmosphere, as all but Lanie and Roger Settle kept their places at the table.  They appeared to be too distressed, or too shocked, too surprised or grief-stricken to speak.
Stick returned.
“Mr. Moore is coming at once, Sir,” he said.
Carolus nodded.
“I’m awfully sorry,” he said.  “But I do think we ought to stay as we are till he arrives.  He’ll need every scrap of help we can give him.”
No one disputed this or agreed.  The assembled guests were still silent and supine under the shock.  Mr. Gorringer played with the spoon from his coffee-cup.  Boater looked almost purple now; his eyes were half-closed and his breathing audibly stertorous.  Roger Settle had taken Lanie across to an arm-chair and was rather ineffectually trying to comfort her, while Felicity Pipford still gazed about her, looking as though she wanted someone to break the silence and would be the first to start talking again.
Mr. Fleece, on the other hand, was dumbfounded.  His rather prominent eyes were wide and his mouth a little open.  Even his boisterousness, his noisy self-confidence, his good mixer’s aptitude for the wrong word breezily spoken, whether of sympathy or congratulation, had clearly broken down.  He looked rather like a plump fish—a red mullet, perhaps—with his open mouth and popping eyes.  Beside him, Mrs. Gorringer looked across to her husband, but, like the rest of them, remained silent.
The minutes began to pass.  The tension became almost intolerable.
At last “in that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid” was heard the voice of Felicity Pipford.
“How did you know it was poison?” she asked Carolus.
All who remained at the table looked towards him.  This was a question most of them wanted to ask.
“I didn’t,” said Carolus.  “I only thought it might be.  It was the only thing on the table tonight not brought here by my housekeeper and her husband.”
“You said ‘Don’t drink it!’ ” pursued Felicity almost accusingly.
“And how right he was,” said Dr. Tom, sniffing at the bottle of Noyau.
“But too late,” said Jason Pipford coldly.
“Yes.  I was too late.”  Carolus spoke in a flat, cold voice.
“Mrs. Fleece was trying to control a rising hysteria.  “Oh God!” she said and, perhaps fortunately, began to cry again.
Now that the silence was broken, a certain amount of sporadic comment was made.
“Terrible thing!” said Mr. Fleece.  “Terrible thing!”
“That,” pronounced Mr. Gorringer, “is to put it mildly.  It is the most terrible thing I have ever heard of in my life, still less witnessed.  Only a moment earlier she was chatting happily to me.  We were discussing certain innovations at the Queen’s School.  Tragic beyond words.”
Mr. Boater appeared to wake up.
“It was more than that,” he said.  “It was cold-blooded, deliberate murder under our very eyes.”
“Murder!” gasped Felicity Pipford.
“Well, wasn’t it?” said Boater aggressively.  “Got to face it,” he added.
“Murder!” repeated Felicity, and the word seemed to ring through the room and echo again and again from the walls.
“Murder most foul,” agreed Mr. Gorringer, and from his place at the corner of the table he looked round the company as though expecting to see guilt in at least one face.
This brought a new element into the situation.  It seemed to be dawning on the guests that the man or woman guilty of this crime might be among them.  There were furtive looks from one to another.  Mrs. Fleece wept more noisily.
“This is intolerable,” said the Vicar.  “How long must we sit here?”
“The police will arrive in a few moments,” said Carolus.  “It will be for them to decide.  But I do not think that they will want anyone to go until they have made their enquiries.”
“You mean, we may be kept here for a long time?” gasped Felicity.
“I may be wrong.  I don’t really know.  But that’s what I imagine,” Carolus told her.
When John Moore at last came in he had with him, in addition to another officer and a doctor, an elderly man in dark clothes, and Moore explained this before he asked any questions.
“Mr. Geary happened to be with me when I received the message, so I asked him to come up here.  Mr. Geary is solicitor to the family.”
Moore took a seat and pulled out his notebook.  Pointedly ignoring Carolus, he turned to Mr. Gorringer.
“Would you be kind enough to tell me what happened?” he asked.
Mr. Gorringer cleared his throat and began to recall the last minutes of Lady Pipford’s life, starting with the conversation she had with him and including the violent behaviour of Carolus.  When he came to this, Moore interrupted and turned to Carolus himself.
“You knew it was poisoned?” he asked.
Carolus made the same reply as he had made to Felicity.
“I see,” said Moore noncommittally, and asked Mr. Gorringer to continue.  This he did, describing the death in slightly dramatic phrases.  He recalled Dr. Tom’s instant examination of the body and quick explanation.  He ended by saying that at the suggestion of Carolus they had all stayed in this room.
Moore was first concerned with the bottle of Noyau and asked Stick how this had come to be on the table.  Stick, a reticent man, looked round as though he expected his wife to be present to assume command of the situation.  He seemed embarrassed at the sudden call on him to speak.
“Lady Pipford sent me down for it,” he said.
“Down?”
“To the wine cellar.”
“What else did you bring?”
“Nothing.  All the wines were Mr. Deene’s.  And the brandy.”
“Lady Pipford did not drink brandy,” explained Mr. Gorringer.  “She preferred Noyau.”
“When did you fetch the bottle?”
“At the last minute.  Before the guests arrived. Lady Pipford came down to see the table.  ‘I must have my own liqueur, though,’ she said, and gave me the key of the cellar.”
“Was this the only bottle of this stuff?”
“No.  There were about half a dozen.  I took the nearest.”
“When was it opened?”
“Then.  As soon as I brought it up.”
“And left with a loose cork in the dining-room?”
“Not cork.  Screw top.  Yes, I left it there.”
“Did anyone go into the dining-room after you had done this?  Before the guests, I mean.”
“Yes, several.  My wife for one.  Mrs. Montaccord wanted to see the table.  And Miss Crick. . . .”
Eyes turned towards Miss Crick, who shewed no change of expression.
“Why was that?” John Moore asked her.
“The flowers,” said Miss Crick.  “I wanted to see the flower arrangement.  There is a little rivalry between Lady Pipford and me on the arrangement of flowers.  So I had a little peep.  I don’t like to say so now, but I was a little disappointed.  Chrysanthemums, as you see.  Such an obvious choice.”
“Who else went in?”
“Anyone may have done,” said Stick.  “That’s all I saw.”
“Did any of you, in fact?” Moore asked, looking round the table.
There was a negative murmur.  The Noyau bottle was carefully put away for fingerprinting and analysis of the contents.
Then Moore proceeded to a detailed cross-examination of all present on their movements since arriving in the house.  This revealed nothing more startling than that Miss Crick, as soon as Stick had opened the door, had demanded the ‘ladies’ room’.  Trouble with her suspender, she now explained.
Moore went farther back.  How had they come here? he asked.  Roger Settle had driven down with Elaine, bringing Jason and Felicity.  Their car was in the garage now.  Mr. and Mrs. Gorringer had engaged a taxi from Newminster.  Carolus had brought Dr. Tom and Phoebe.  Mr. Boater had walked.  It was Mr. Fleece who produced a mild surprise in this matter.
“We came by taxi,” he said.  When Lady Pipford was good enough to invite us to her house at night in the winter her invitation always included a conveyance.  Most kind and considerate.  This evening young Bretton brought his taxi to our door at seven o’clock, and we called for Miss Crick.  I was rather displeased, because he had Munn’s daughter sitting with him in the front seat.”
“Poppy Munn?”
“Yes.  I may be old-fashioned, but I feel it is out of place in a taxi-driver.”
“Did you see the taxi drive away from here?”
“No, I didn’t.  There was a little rain falling and we hurried in.  My wife’s dress . . .”
“Quite.  Did anyone else see anything of the taxi?”
“Yes.  About ten minutes,” Carolus told him.
Moore passed on.  He was at his best making an interrogation of this kind, unhurried, cool, courteous but quite firm.  He elicited the information he required about Carolus’s arranging for the Sticks to buy and cook the dinner and supplying the wine so that nothing from the house should be used; he gathered an idea of the main conversational trends before and during dinner.  Leaving the more personal matters of each individual aside for a later and more private occasion, he quickly obtained a general picture of the whole fatal dinner-party.
Stick, who had made his escape, came in to tell Mr. and Mrs. Fleece that their taxi was waiting.
“I told him eleven,” the Vicar said.  “We expected a long and convivial evening.”  He sounded strangely subdued.
“Is it Bretton?” Moore asked of Stick.
“Yes.  He has a young woman with him in the car.”
“Bring them both in, please.”
Blinking a little in the light, Eddy Bretton and Poppy entered.  They had been informed by Stick of what had happened and asked no question now.
Moore explained to Eddy Bretton that it seemed his taxi had driven away ten minutes after he had dropped Mr. and Mrs. Fleece.
“S’right,” said Eddy.
“How did that come about?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“What were you doing during those ten minutes?”
“Necking.”
Seeing Mr. Fleece look puzzled, Mr. Gorringer broke in informatively.
“Americanism.  Making love.  What we used to call spooning.”
“Just so,” said Mr. Fleece, as though he had known all along.
Moore pressed Eddy on this point.
“Here?  In the drive?” he said.
“Why not?”
“It seems rather curious.  You could have driven off somewhere.”
“I did.  Afterwards.  This was just a few minutes we had.”
“I see,” retorted Moore rather coldly.
He then turned to Mr. Geary and asked a few questions about Lady Pipford’s Will.  Geary gave him the information which Carolus had from Lady Pipford, adding that, ironically enough, he had the new draft ready in his office and had meant to bring it to Lady Pipford.
“She has not signed her new Will, then?” asked Moore.
“No.  There have been a number of delays.”
“So the former Will stands, and is Darryl Montaccord were alive still he would inherit a share?”
“As it is, his share will go to his heirs and assigns.  If he made a Will I fear that part of the estate will leave the family.”
There was an interruption from Mr. Gorringer.
“Do you think, my dear Deene, you could use your good offices to obtain a little water or soda-water for us?  This room is stifling, and I speak for others beside myself when I say that refreshment would be welcome, particularly if we are to remain here some time.
Carolus nodded to Stick, who went out.
It is hot in here,” agreed the Vicar.
Carolus went across to the french windows and pulled back the heavy curtains.  As he did so he received a shock, for standing not two feet away on the other side of the glass doors was Nockings.  His long, graveyard face and black clothes gave him a startling appearance as the light suddenly shone on him.
He attempted to walk away, but Moore called sharply, “Bring that man in, please.”
Nockings entered through the french windows.
“You were listening?” asked Moore.
“I was doing my duty,” Nockings retorted loftily.  I was making my rounds according to her ladyship’s orders.  I heard sounds from this room . . .”
“But you knew there was a dinner-party being given this evening?”
“Not at eleven o’clock at night, I didn’t, when it started at eight.  It seemed very strange to me, in fact.  Very strange.  I’m not a man to go stoking and poking with what doesn’t concern me, but being responsible to her ladyship, I did find it strange that there should be people still in the dining-room at this time.”
Moore asked for an account of his movements that evening, and Nockings gave a long and circuitous one which shewed him as a man almost unnaturally conscientious.  It also revealed the fact that at six o’clock that evening Mr. Bunt had driven his little delivery van to the back door and Nockings, talking to him before he drove away, had heard the reason for this.  At the last minute Mrs. Stick had found she was out of oil for the salad and had ’phoned up Mr. Bunt and begged him to oblige.
Moore asked Nockings then if he had seen Swillow this evening.
“I have not,” he replied with some feeling.  “I was not likely to.  I do not spend my evenings pigging and swigging in the public-house.”
“Swillow was at the Bull, then?”
Stick ventured to tell John Moore that Swillow was at the back door, and when he had been called in, Moore’s question was answered.  A glance at Swillow shewed where he had spent the evening.
Mr. Gorringer now addressed Moore.
“Detective Sergeant,” he said.  “While I appreciate that certain immediate inquiries are necessary and that our presence is required for them, I must point out that the ladies are tired. . . .”
“So am I,” snapped John Moore unexpectedly.  “I’ve been working fourteen hours a day on this case for a fortnight.  I’ve warned everyone concerned of the dangers and my warnings have been ignored.  I have listened to more lies in this affair than I’ve heard in my entire career.  The ladies are tired?  You’re tired?  Well, I’m sorry, but you may be more tired still before I’ve finished making inquiries this evening.”
“That,” said Mr. Gorringer, “is neither respectful nor logical.  It happens that I firmly defend the police force, and all along have wished that these unfortunate mysteries should be left entirely to them, believing them adequate to deal with them.  But upon my soul, Detective Sergeant, you give me qualms.  If you have any good reasons for keeping the ladies here, I think we should know them.
“I have excellent reasons.  Three people have already died at the hand of some probably insane assassin.  I am not taking any more chances.  No one leaves this house until I have been given all the information that is available.  This is not a parlour game.
“Your last observation is offensive,” thundered the headmaster.  “We have been witnesses this evening of a very horrible thing.  We have seen a lady for whom we all had the greatest respect fall forward dead.  We are not likely to mistake that for a parlour game.”
“But if this dinner-party had not taken place while the other deaths were still unexplained, Lady Pipford might still be alive.  He looked at Carolus.  “I think that everyone here this evening is to some extent to blame.”
Mr. Gorringer was not going to have that.
“And the police force is utterly blameless, I suppose?  You are employed to enforce law and order and prevent crime, and instead you take it upon yourself to inform me, the headmaster of the Queen’s School, Newminster, Mr. Fleece the Vicar of this parish and these other ladies and gentlemen that we are to blame for what has happened.  I shall report this matter to the Chief Constable.”  John Moore was too angry to answer this for a moment, and Mr. Gorringer seized the advantage of his silence.  “And now,” he said, growing grandiose, “will you kindly make what further inquiries are necessary so that we can disperse?”
John Moore glanced down at his notebook, then turned to Carolus.
“I’m not altogether satisfied at your explanation of your warning to Lady Pipford—the warning which came too late.  What made you realize suddenly that she was about to drink from the only bottle which had not come from your stock?”
“I had just heard her say that she ordered this liqueur by the dozen bottles.”
“I see.  Do you know more about this case than you have yet admitted?”
“Oh, yes,” said Carolus.
“You know all about it, in fact?” said Moore bitterly.
“Pretty well.”
“You know who murdered Lady Pipford, perhaps?”
“Yes.”
“And May Swillow?”
“Yes.”
“Did you know the identity of this murderer before you came here this evening?”
The room had suddenly grown tense.
“Yes, I did.”
“Yet you did not save Lady Pipford’s life?”
“I couldn’t.  I did everything possible.”
Mr. Gorringer boomed across at Carolus.
“My dear Deene, I beg you to reflect.  You are almost admitting to being an accessory.  Be cautious, pray.”
“There has been too much caution already,” said Carolus.  “Yes, I know the murderer’s identity, and have known for some time.”
“I suppose you intend to reveal it to us?” said John Moore, with fierce sarcasm.  “One of your brilliant strokes of deduction which leave our patient researches behind.”
“I’ll tell you if you want.  But it will take some time.  I’ve no wish to keep everyone up.”
This was greeted with reassurances.  Even Monty Boater seemed to wake up again, and Carolus was told from all sides that no one could sleep anyway until the thing was solved.
At this point Stick came in again.
“There’s a young gentleman from the school asking to see you,” he said to Carolus.  “He says he has the information you wanted.”
He was followed into the room by Rupert Priggley.
“I heard you were out here.  I thought this had better not wait till morning.  It’s red hot,” he said, failing to keep the excitement out of his voice.
The headmaster viewed his least favourite pupil sternly.
“I don’t know what you’re doing out of bed at this hour, Priggley,” he began.  “But I shall certainly . . .”
“Forget it,” said Rupert.  He was evidently beside himself.  “Read that,” he added to Carolus and handed him a slip of paper.
As he read it Carolus nodded.  “I thought you might find that,” he said.
John Moore looked at his watch.
“If you have got something to say,” he told Carolus, “please get through it as quickly as possible.  We don’t want to spend all night here, and I’ve got a lot more inquiries to make.”
“They won’t be necessary,” said Carolus.
Rupert Priggley sat back. “In one of your maddeningly cocksure moods, I see, Sir,” he said.
“Silence, Priggley,” thundered Mr. Gorringer.  Then, more gently, “Well, Deene?”
It was clear that he did not intend to lose the chairmanship of the occasion which he had managed to usurp.
“I should like a whisky-and-soda before I begin,” said Carolus.
The headmaster spoke again.
“Is that wise, do you think?”
“I sent some whisky up,” said Carolus.
“I daresay.  But it has been in this house for some time.  The Noyau . . .”
“I’ll chance that.”
His drink was brought, and they all watched with expressions of fascinated horror while he swallowed most of it.  Evidently they thought he would collapse as Lady Pipford had done.  But Carolus was very far from any kind of collapse.
Roger Settle came and spoke in a low voice to John Moore.
“Certainly Mrs. Montaccord may go to bed if she wants,” Moore agreed.  “This must have been a great shock to her.”
Elaine left the room.