Dead for a Ducat
“On October the fifteenth Lady Pipford sent for Mr. Geary and asked him to draw up a new Will for her, cutting out Montaccord. It seems likely that Montaccord overheard this or at least guessed the reason for Mr. Geary’s visit. Two days later Montaccord called on Jason Pipford in his laboratory and a few days later still bought two boxes of Windsor chocolates in Newminster. October the twenty-second was Lady Pipford’s birthday, and she was presented by Montaccord with one of the boxes in which every chocolate had enough cyanide of potassium in it to kill its consumer instantly. Lady Pipford suspected something of the sort and sent specimens to her son for analysis. On November the second she gave a small dinner-party, but as her guests arrived she read a letter from Jason which confirmed her suspicion that the chocolates were poisoned. She ‘scarcely spoke’ to Montaccord throughout the evening, Mr. Fleece recalled.
“We who knew her can guess something of what passed in her mind now. She was a woman who had more than once faced crises in which life or death would very much at stake. She had probably defended herself with a firearm before. Nothing would persuade her to report this matter to the police, whom she detested for what she believed their treachery towards her late husband. She decided to take the law into her own hands. I don’t think it would have occurred seriously to her to do anything with a poisoner except kill him. To her uncompromising and fearless nature it would seem simply logical and necessary.
“I think Montaccord might have saved his life if he had gone at once to his hotel and never returned to Mincott. But in some ways he was a slothfully unimaginative man, and can have had no premonition of what would come. He was to go away, and then on November the fourteenth, the eve of his planned departure, he decided to stay for another week. That was too much for his mother-in-law, and she decided to put into effect immediately her plan for killing him.
“Or it may be that she never waivered and had decided that in any case Montaccord’s last night in Mincott should be his last on earth. She confided in no one. She was quite sure of herself and the success of the stratagem, so much cleverer than Montaccord’s.
“At any rate she heard that afternoon from Darryl that he intended to stay. ‘He’s really intolerable,’ she told Miss Crick; ‘I did think we were quit of him.’ That was clever, I think. A less intelligent person would have made up something about his threats to commit suicide. But Margaret Pipford made no such mistake.
“Her plan was to shoot Montaccord in such a way that it would appear as though he had committed suicide. I think she would have preferred to shoot him as he faced her, but that was impossible, not because she was afraid, but because it could not then be made to appear as though he had taken his own life.
“She decided to give him a sleeping-draught. We heard from May Swillow that recently Montaccord had taken to having a rum-and-milk before going to bed and that its preparation puzzled her because Montaccord was quite unpractical in such things. It looks as though for several nights Lady Pipford had prepared this for him with the deliberate intention of being able to insert a sleeping-draught on the night she had chosen for his destruction.
“She knew he slept with his mouth open; indeed, that he snored. She determined to take a gun, put its barrel into or near his mouth and pull the trigger. The gun would lie along his right side. She would then put the thumb of his right hand on the trigger. She would wear gloves so that no fingerprints would appear. Someone might doubt that it was suicide, but certainly no one could prove that it was not.
“But she took proportions. Suppose that something unforeseen, something she could not imagine, shewed afterwards that Montaccord had been shot—she must not be proved to be the only other person in the house. Something must be done which, if the emergency arose, suggested an entry by a person unknown. So she decided to open the scullery window. That would be just enough. She would not overdo it. In fact throughout her planning and carrying out of this murder she shewed great level-headed this in not overdoing anything.
“Finally, when Montaccord was dead, she would ’phone for me. Her known antipathy to the police and an old family friendship made this a reasonable action. She knew I would bring the police, but that was another matter. It was all admirably worked out in just enough and not too much detail. Even as it happened, with all the bits of bad luck she had and the one error she made, she would never have been convicted, even if she had lived to face trial, or even if it had been thought worthwhile to try for a conviction.
“And how did it work out? She went about it coolly. First she had to prevent Jason coming down as he intended that night. She ’phoned him and said that as Montaccord was staying on for a week there was no point in his coming. She was emphatic in saying that nothing could be done about it.
“She and Montaccord must have dined together, and it is gruesome to think of that meal shared by the man who had attempted to kill his mother-in-law and still intended to do so and the woman who within a few hours would kill him. They probably spoke very little, but what data for the criminologist would have been a recording of their conversation.
“It was after dinner, I think, that she went up and took the key out of Montaccord’s door. She would have left this as late as possible, so that he would not notice it till he went to bed.
“At ten o’clock she brought Montaccord his rum-and-milk, as was now her habit. In it she had put two of her sleeping tablets powdered. She was relieved to see him drink it all and take himself off to bed.
“She gave him an hour to fall into a deep sleep, then, pulling on an old pair of gloves she used for doing the flowers, she went out and opened the scullery window. From the scullery she went to the gun-room, took down and loaded Montaccord’s own gun and carried it upstairs. His door was of course unlocked and he was snoring loudly. She shot him as she had planned, left the gun in the right position and came downstairs.
“So far, so good. But now happened the unexpected. The front-door bell rang and she found Jason there. Her anger is readily imaginable and Jason Pipford has hinted at it. She gave him no reason except that he had done what she had expressly forbidden, but she told him he must go straight back to London. Such was the awe in which she was held, that Jason obeyed. He had sent away the taxi in which he had come from Newminster and had to ’phone for Bretton, who reach the house at twenty-five past eleven and took Jason up to London.
“Since Nockings heard what was almost certainly the fatal shot at approximately eleven o’clock, the dead body had thus been upstairs for nearly half an hour. This was not what she had planned. She had intended to get me out of once, so that when an examination of the body was made no time-lag would be discoverable.
“I think—though it’s little more than a guess—that she went to Montaccord’s room again before telephoning. At all events, she probably did something which meant pulling on her gloves again, because I found them stuffed into a plant pot near the telephone. She was quite cool when she spoke to me, saying simply that Montaccord was dead and it looked as though he had shot himself. I agreed to come out at once.
“But although I did not know it at the time, she told her first significant lie then. ‘About ten minutes ago,’ she said. It was, in fact, three quarters of an hour. She was trying to blot out the time in which Jason had been in the house.
“I found the house a blaze of lights, but that was natural enough. I can understand anyone wanting light everywhere when there was a corpse upstairs. But what did not seem quite so natural when Lady Pipford had told me that she went to bed soon after ten was that the fire in the smoking-room was burning brightly. Nor did I feel very easy about the time she gave me for going to bed, since she was a notoriously late bird.
“Then I came on her only serious blunder. On a side-table was the glass in which had been Montaccord’s doped rum-and-milk. She had intended, of course, to wash this up and put it away, but Jason’s arrival and upset her plans, and she had called me before she had tidied up as she meant to do.
“When I noticed it and asked about it, she lost her head of little. After all, she only had to say that she herself had used it, and I should have thought no more. But she probably thought it had aroused my suspicions, and had visions of an autopsy on Montaccord which would reveal the phenobarbitone or whatever it was she had given him in his rum-and-milk. So she made up a story of his having come and asked her for sleeping-tablets. I was almost sure it was a lie, because Darryl’s dressing-gown and bedroom slippers were packed.
“Then John Moore arrived at the door and I went to open it. When I returned a few minutes later the glass was gone and the french windows open. I do not believe for a moment that anyone had come in from the outside, as I was meant to believe. If so, the french windows had been unlocked all the evening, which was most unlikely. From this moment I knew that either Margaret Pipford had killed Montaccord or had been closely associated with whatever person had done so. And there was not then, and is not now, the slightest reason to suppose that there was anyone else in the house at the time.
“Nockings told me something which almost clinched the matter in my mind. He said that acting on Lady Pipford’s orders he was cleaning the bed near the french windows of the smoking-room (for both this room and that have french windows) when he found a milk-stained glass. This was afterwards examined, and was found to contain rum-and-milk and nothing else. There could be no doubt that it had been planted there for him to find, a rather clumsy effort to avert my suspicions over the glass that had disappeared. For, of course, those milk-stains were new, and not those left by the doped rum-and-milk drunk by Montaccord. Margaret Pipford and carried her technique of ‘covering up’, which she had already used the sculler window, a step farther.
“But what seems to me to complete the case is a nice piece of balance which appeals to me, which the police will probably find merely academic. Just as the main evidence against Montaccord is the fact that he was murdered by Lady Pipford, so the main evidence against Lady Pipford is that she was murdered by Montaccord.”
“That’s very pretty,” put in Rupert Priggley, “but does it mean anything?”
“Priggley . . .” admonished the headmaster.
“It means a great deal. At the beginning of this case Detective Sergeant Moore was convinced that if Montaccord was murdered it was by a maniac, because no one could possibly have a motive for murdering that man. But when we learnt that the chocolates were poisoned, and still more now that we have seen the Noyau poisoned, we know that one person, the one against whom those poisonings were directed, most certainly had a very potent motive—self-preservation with perhaps a spice of vengeance. We know that Margaret Pipford killed her son-in-law because we know that he was trying to kill her. We know that he was trying to kill her because she killed him.
“In sequence to that we have to notice the behaviour of Lady Pipford when she found May Swillow poisoned by one of the chocolates given her by Montaccord. It was not only that she was genuinely distressed over this, it was that she saw the danger of allowing it to become known. If the police or I discovered the truth about the chocolates we should at once be provided with what we sought—a motive for the murder of Montaccord. So she took swift and nearly effective steps to see that we should not discover. She at once removed the box of poisoned chocolates and dragged May Swillow’s body away from the cupboard in which they were hidden. Then she probably lied to me about where she had been. John Moore had told me that she went upstairs after a late tea, and when I asked her where she was between tea and finding the body she said ‘Out’. She may have been, but I don’t think it’s likely. Also she said she had seen a car in the lane. I think this was sheer embroidery. Nockings had seen one there on the night Montaccord was murdered, and I think Margaret Pipford made up her story of the second one. It conforms with all her cover-up technique.
“Anyway, there’s my case against her. It’s now for the police to find evidence to confirm it.”
“It’s all very well,” said John Moore, becoming a trifle more good-humoured than he had been. “But you know perfectly well that there isn’t a solid piece of proof in the lot. I daresay you’re right. I daresay that’s exactly as it happened. But what have you told us that would convince a jury?”
“My dear John,” Carolus replied, “it is not my business to convince juries, but to convince myself. You and your very competent boys can get to work on that. I am sure you’ll find plenty of evidence. Things under the microscope, fingerprints, heaven knows what. With a bit of luck and maybe something like a diary or a letter or something of the sort. It’s all yours.”
“Thanks,” said Moore. “At all events I am satisfied that there is no need to keep these ladies and gentlemen here any longer.”
“A handsome admission, Detective Sergeant,” pronounced Mr. Gorringer. “Let me say that I am the first to appreciate that your methods of investigation are not given to flights of fancy such as ornament the researches of Mr. Deene. I only trust that you will conduct the remainder of this case with as little publicity as possible. You can understand that I do not want the name of the headmaster of the Queen’s School, Newminster, associated with these somewhat hair-raising events. It would be advantageous to us all, I think, if it could simply be announced that Lady Pipford, who was on our Board of Governors, had died suddenly at her home, Mincott House. Yes ‘died suddenly’ is undoubtedly the best phrase to employe. Particularly as, to our great relief, this will not be followed by a trial for murder.”
“I’ll see what can be done,” said Moore.
“I know one thing,” said Rupert Priggley. “I shall never want another sweet or chocolate as long as I live. A more revolting record of greed I’ve never heard. From now on cigarettes only for me.”
“Priggley!” admonished Mr. Gorringer.
Mr. Fleece could contain himself no longer.
“A triumph, Deene!” he shouted. “No less than a triumph! We are infinitely indebted to you. Mincott is itself again!”
“He’s not forgetting that there has been Death amongst us,” qualified his wife, watching the Vicar’s flushed face with some anxiety.
“I don’t feel very triumphant,” said Carolus.
And indeed he did not. During the drive back to Newminster with the Sticks and Rupert Priggley added to his passengers he scarcely spoke, and thereafter he was silent on the Mincott case. Even his housekeeper respected this reticence and neither by word nor look reproached him for bringing her and her husband so close to death.
— THE END —