Dead for a Ducat
“I’m afraid that what I am going to say will cause pain to some of you,” began Carolus. “Particularly to one of you,” he added grimly. “So I’ll say at the beginning that I have no absolute proof. The evidence convinces me, but it may not convince the police. Or the coroner.”
“Or the jury,” Moore added.
“If it does convince the police sufficiently they will be able to find support for it. They have the means of doing so which I have not. Evidence which they will obtain will probably be less circumstantial than mine. I have no objection at all to being considered an interfering amateur. I only hope that what I have been lucky enough to discover may be of assistance to them in making their more professional case.”
“How all this false modesty bores me,” said Rupert Priggley. Mr. Gorringer seemed about to answer this, but was satisfied with a gesture commanding silence. Carolus continued.
“First I should like for a moment to shelve the question of Montaccord’s death and concentrate on the two poisonings. These are the very crux of this tragic affair.
“In England we feel, rightly or wrongly, that the poisoner is the meanest of all murderers. He is also very often the hardest to conflict. He has three lines of escape. He may administer a poison which is not recognized as the cause of death. This death appears to be a natural one, so that only by a post-mortem is the presence of poison revealed. He may administer poison in such a way that it will appear to have been taken deliberately by his victim, so that murder appears suicide. Or he may just administer poison and rely on lack of evidence against himself. If he is ruthless and has the nerve to go through with it, this is probably the safest, for he leaves none of that evidence that comes from over-planning. He may be suspected of the crime, but who is to prove, in court or out, that he is guilty? Motive alone will not be enough, for there are always others with a motive. His proximity at the time means little or nothing, for the poisoner may work from the other side of the world.
“It was a poisoner of this last kind, I became convinced, who was at work here. Neither of these two deaths could appear for a moment is anything but death by poisoning and neither could be mistaken for suicide. Someone was depending on the impossibility of a conviction without evidence.
“But this kind of poisoning also has its nemesis. For that poison has to be obtained, and it is through this that many, many poisoners have been convicted. How many hangings have been brought about through a man’s purchase or possession of weed killer or rat poison? It was through this that I hoped to identify the guilty man or woman in this case. Cyanide of potassium is not easily obtained by an unauthorized person. So the first fact I knew about the murderer—for whom I intend to use the masculine pronoun—was that he had access, direct or indirect, to this chemical.
“The second thing I knew was that in one of the two cases at least he had a motive. No motive for killing May Swillow readily comes to mind, but there may have been several people with a motive, of one kind or another, for killing Lady Pipford.
“His third qualification was that he should have had access both to the chocolate which May Swillow ate and to the Noyau which lady Pipford drank. And here an interesting point arises. I discovered from Mr. Boater recently that Darryl Montaccord was in possession of a key of the cellar when he died. Now this key was not among his listed possessions and so far as I know has not been found. When I knew this, I insisted on supplying the various liquors for this party myself. As you know, my security plan was defeated by Lady Pipford’s liking for Noyau. She sent down to the cellar for one of her bottles. Since I exclude the Sticks from suspicion and find it difficult to believe that anyone else would have taken the risk of entering the dining-room this evening and poisoning the Noyau without being seen, I am venturing to assume, at least for the moment, that the poisoner had access to the cellar.
“The fourth identifying factor was the poisoner’s character. I may say at once that for reasons which I will give in a moment, I’ve never believed for a moment in the theory of a homicidal maniac at work. Lady Pipford’s death was very carefully and ingeniously engineered. I was looking, then, for someone capable of a most cold-blooded and cowardly crime, not a lunatic with a nightmare rage for killing.
“The fifth thing was that the murderer must have known the habits of the household, the passion for sweets which seems to have been almost universal, and Lady Pipford’s liking for Noyau.
“The sixth was some knowledge of the materials and methods used, a little acquaintance with this poison and its effects and the quantity necessary, but it’s peculiar odour, which could be so well concealed in a nutty chocolate or a bottle of liqueur which is made from peach kernels.
“Finally, there was the certainty that he knew himself to be a good actor, that he could watch the results of his cruel scheme without turning a hair. He must have been prepared to see his victims died before his eyes without revealing himself. That to his scheme of things was essential. It takes a man or woman of brutally thick skin to sit still and watch while his victim dies, and whatever he may have seemed as a person, this quality of his was an essential part of his character.
“This murderer could be man or woman. There was nothing I could see in any of those seven qualifications which revealed him as one or the other. He could be young or old. He could be what is called ‘educated’ or otherwise. He could follow one of the learning professions or he could be a farm worker who had never read more than the daily paper. This murderer could be an old lady interested in gardening or a young man interested in motors. He could be a parson or a schoolmaster, a doctor or a chemist, a man who liked his drink or a man engaged to be married. This murderer could be a nervous or a self-conscious woman, a man or woman with a grouse, or a breezy girl. He could be a member of the family or an employee. He could be a silent man or one who talked too much. Still, with all these possibilities, the seven necessary qualifications were enough.
“Indeed, if you examine them carefully with all their implications, you will see, I think, that when I had duly tabulated them in my mind, I knew that there was only one person who fitted them all. Not any one startling piece of evidence, not any single clue, at the seven limitations gave me the identity of the poisoner.
“But of course I had more than that to go on. May Swillow died from eating a poisoned chocolate. There were several possible sources of supply for that, but only one very probable. It might have been one of those sold by Mr. Bunt to Nockings in lieu of the sweets May Swillow wanted, in which case it could have been poisoned before it left the shop, while in possession of Nockings, or during the hour or two in which the bag lay on the kitchen table. But this was rendered unlikely by the fact that none of the other chocolates in the bag were poisoned and only two had been taken from it. That meant that only one chocolate in the whole bag—the second eaten by May Swillow—could have held poison.
“Then I knew from the postman that on the previous day May Swillow had received a box of chocolates from Mrs. Montaccord as a present after her stay here. But apart from the absence of any known reason why Mrs. Montaccord should wish to kill May Swillow, and the extreme unlikelihood of it, it was of course the fact that this box was not with her when she was found. It seems most unlikely that she would have brought it to work that day. Indeed, knowing the sweet-eating capacities of the household, I think it unlikely that there were any of this box left. Perhaps Swillow can help us there. Do you remember your wife receiving a box of chocolates by post on the day before she died?”
“Ah,” said Swillow affirmatively.
“Do you know what she did with them?”
“Scoffed the lot,” said Swillow.
“Same day she got ’em.”
“Thank you. No. It was from neither of these that the poisoned chocolate came, but from that mysterious two-pound box of Windsor chocolates which Lady Pipford locked away on the evening of the last dinner-party.
“It was Mr. Fleece who told me of this. He and his wife arrived first, and were alone with Lady Pipford. A letter from Jason Pipford lay on the table, and Lady Pipford asked permission to read it. ‘I have been waiting for this letter,’ she said. As she finished it, in Mr. Fleece’s words, a ‘remarkable change’ came over her. She was ‘agitated’. And when Mr. Fleece asked whether she had received bad news she said it was ‘puzzling news’.
“But more remarkable was her behaviour. The first thing she did after reading her son’s letter was to pick up a box of Windsor chocolates and lock it not in the drawer in which sweets were ordinarily kept, but in the cupboard of the bureau. in fact later Poppy Munn told me that while this box remained in the cupboard others were bought, kept in the drawer or eaten and replaced.
“If we associate this looking up of the chocolates by Lady Pipford with the reading of the letter, and this box of chocolates with the death of May Swillow, I think we can form a pretty got good idea of the letter’s contents. But I’m going to ask Jason Pipford to do what he ought to have done long ago, and reveal that to us.”
Jason Pipford blinked.
“You’re quite right,” he said. “My mother sent me half a dozen chocolates to analyse. I found cyanide of potassium in all of them. A sufficient dose to kill anyone eating one chocolate.”
“And you tell us this now!” John Moore almost shouted. “Why didn’t you reported immediately?”
“My mother insisted on secrecy. I did not, indeed I do not, know where the chocolates came from, and she would give me no information at all, simply saying that there was nothing to worry about. She was doing everything necessary.”
“But good heavens! man, don’t you see that your failure and your mother’s to report this caused the death of an innocent woman?”
Jason looked obstinate.
“She was stealing, after all,” he said.
“Stealing! A chocolate. I think it very likely that you will face a charge in this connection.”
“I didn’t know anything about it,” announced Felicity Pipford. “Not that I want to know my husband’s business. I said to him only this evening, ‘I don’t want to know your business.’ I’m sure I . . .”
Jason Pipford in a cold rage suddenly shouted down the table, “Shut up!”
Carolus thought it was best to resume at once.
“As a matter of fact, I had another reason to suppose that it was a chocolate from the locked-up box which killed May Swillow. That came from one of the few things Swillow has said, in this case or at any other time, perhaps. He got the trouble to come to my house to inform me that his wife knew of that box of chocolates locked up in the cupboard of the bureau and had said she would have them if ever the cupboard was left unlocked.
“This is what must have happened. Lady Pipford was not by nature a locker-up. It’s quite an obsession with some people, as you probably know. She get this box of chocolates locked up because she knew they were poisoned. She did not throw them away because she might need them as evidence. But one day she forgot to take out the key, and when what May Swillow came into clear away the tea-things she saw it and seized her chance. The result, as you know, was tragic.
“Someone knew about this box of poisoned chocolates and saw that may Swillow had died from one of them. This person did not wish this to be known. May had fallen by the bureau, probably with the box in her hands. Somebody moved her body across the room and cleared up all trace of the box. The police discovered that the body had been dragged across the room.
“Lady Pipford was terribly upset by my Swillow’s death, feeling herself indirectly responsible. It was, in a certain sense, an accident, but it would not have happened if Lady Pipford had been more careful or, better still, if she had been more frank. It is notable that while she welcomed my investigation of Darryl’s death, she did everything possible to prevent my inquiring into May Swillow’s, even going so far as to telephone Mr. Gorringer and ask him to co-operate in persuading me to drop the whole thing. Moreover, when John Moore told me how Lady Pipford had taken the news, he said a very curious thing: ‘It’s almost as though she blamed herself in some way.’ Of course she did. She had kept the chocolates without reporting the matter. She had left the cupboard open. Of course she blamed herself.
“That evening Nockings was surprised to find her emerging from his boiler-room. She was ‘upset’ he told me, and he supposed it was because he caught her checking up on his work. She may or may not have just thrown those poisoned chocolates to the flames. At all events they have never been seen since, and when I asked her about them she was able cheerfully to invite me to inspect the cupboard where they had been.
“We know, then, how May Swillow died, but it does not tell us at once who the murderer may have been. We can add one more qualification. It must have been someone who could get that box of chocolates into Lady Pipford’s possession, someone who hoped that she would accept them without question, but someone who in fact aroused suspicion by the gift. The choice, you observe, is narrowing down still more.”
Mr. Gorringer held up his hand.
“I really think a small intermission would be desirable,” he said. “It must be a considerable strain for Deene, and it certainly is for us, too.”
Carolus smiled gratefully.
“Have a whisky-and-soda, headmaster? You can see it’s done me no harm.”
“I think perhaps I will. Rarely indeed that I indulge in spirits, but tonight shall be an exception.”
“Tonight is an exception,” said his wife. “It is not every day . . .” She stopped herself in time, seeing most of the guests looking pale and wretched. It was not that she had intended to be funny, but that there was a danger of someone, knowing her penchant, might mistake her remark for a witticism and start laughing.
“Of course you haven’t said a thing yet,” remarked Rupert Priggley to Carolus. “All this dreary theorizing. Who is the murderer, anyway? Who cares, for that matter?” he added.
Mr. Fleece was regaining his form.
“A great shock to us all,” he was saying loudly now. “A very great shock. She was always so very much alive. It still seems incredible. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I could scarcely bring myself to believe it. She will be buried here, I suppose? I shall have the melancholy duty.”
“Will you?” said Mrs. Gorringer nastily. “Someone here is for it, you know. Mr. Deene will soon shew us who we ought to have suspected all along.”
With gratitude in our heart, Mrs. Fleece looked aside at Monty Boater to find that to all appearances he was fast asleep. Even the death of Lady Pipford, she believed now, would have failed to hold one of his marrow-freezing stories.
“Of course,” said Miss Crick to Roger Settle. “It is very terrible, I know, and poor Margaret was one of my greatest friends, but it is interesting to have it all explained like this, isn’t it? Are you interested?”
“Considerablah,” said Roger Settle.
A rumbling came from Mr. Gorringer as he cleared his throat.
“I think, if you’re ready, Deene, we might perhaps proceed? We do not want to be longer than necessary. And here I should like to interpose a query. Had you in any ordinary sense a collection of suspects in this matter of poisoning?”
“Not in any ordinary sense, but of course several of my seventh of occasions were not operative until tonight, so the field was much wider. I suppose that on paper I could have suspected any one of a dozen people.”
Well, Nockings, for instance. He quarrelled with the Swillows. He had a packet of sweets in his hands for a time which was found in May Swillow’s pocket, and though, as we have seen, it did not seem to be one from this packet which poisoned her, there was no absolute proof of that. Moreover Nockings has a way of moving rather furtively round the house at night which could draw suspicion to him.”
“I don’t wish to say anything, Mr. Deene. I’m not a man to go shouting and sprouting in anger when I hear something I don’t like. But I do not see that you had any reason to suspect me of that crime.”
“I said there were no suspects in the ordinary sense of the word. But there were people who could not be altogether dismissed from suspicion. Miss Crick, for example.”
“Oh dear! Now I am in for it!” cried Miss Crick. “Well, say your say.”
“Miss Crick might have given Lady Pipford the chocolates without attracting much attention. She frequently made presents. She is an adept in the stillroom, if not the laboratory. Her coming so readily to aid Lady Pipford might be held incriminating, because only someone brave or someone who knew where the danger lay would venture here at that time.”
“I came because I was needed,” said Miss Crick reproachfully.
“Then there was Mr. Boater. It was hard to suggest any motive for him, but the same applied to most other people. He certainly knew the ways of the house. He had caused to dislike Lady Pipford, who had been very rude to him. He admitted this to me in terms which suggested a cruelly deflated ego.
“Thanks very much,” said Monty Boater, who had woken up at the sound of his name.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fleece could not be excluded,” went on Carolus calmly, “if only because they had expectations under Lady Pipford’s Will. Nor could Poppy Munn, who was in the house at the time, but apparently found nothing remarkable in May Swillow’s long absence from the kitchen, but left the finding of the body to Lady Pipford. Even Swillow himself remained on my list.
“And there was the family. Jason Pipford certainly had access to the poison used, and Mrs. Montaccord could have sent the Windsor chocolate to her mother as she sent others to May Swillow.
Finally there were one or two people who —perhaps merely by circumstance—have been connected with the case at several points, Bunt the village grocer and Eddy Bretton the garage man, for instance. Bunt supplied chocolates and came up to the house tonight shortly before dinner, and Bretton seems to have been up here at all relevant times. Then Mr. and Mrs. Gorringer have been guests at both of Lady Pipford’s dinner-parties . . .”
“Deene,” warned Mr. Gorringer, “I think you forget yourself. “To suggest that your headmaster . . .”
“The same applies,” added Carolus hurriedly, “to Dr. and Mrs. Thomas.”
This seemed to pacify Mr. Gorringer.
“So among these was your man?” asked Dr. Tom.
“No. He wasn’t. I have said that none of these were suspects in any ordinary sense of the word, for not one of them fulfilled all my seven conditions. Most of them fulfilled one or two, some of them more, but the poisoner had to fulfil all.”
“But there is no one living being . . .” persisted Dr. Tom.
“You’re not going to drag out a complete stranger at this point, are you?” asked Rupert Priggley.
“No. Not by any means a complete stranger. But not a living being either. Lady Pipford and May Swillow were both murdered by the late Daryl Montaccord.”