Dead for a Ducat
Dr. Tom’s prediction about the attitude towards the case likely to be adopted by Mr. Gorringer, the headmaster of the Queen’s School, was not long in shewing itself to be correct. Next morning in the Break, as Carolus hurried across the quadrangle intent on reaching the common room for a cigarette and The Times crossword, he heard his name called in the headmaster’s unmistakable voice
“Ah, Deene,” said Mr. Gorringer.
His ‘Ah’ was a characteristic greeting. With it he could express the pleasure and surprise of coming on someone at last whom he had long sought, or hint reproof, or bring peremptorily to attention. This morning, Carolus thought, there was a hint of uncertainty and inquiry in the sound.
He turned and gazed without pleasure on the approaching headmaster. Mr. Gorringer looked a little larger than life today, His big pale solemn face set off by the shining crimson of his large ears. He wore his gown, while his mortarboard, severely set square on his head, added a stern and humourless touch to the whole.
“Hello, headmaster. Nice breezy morning, isn’t it?”
“Indeed yes,” said Mr. Gorringer grudgingly. “I wanted a Word with you, my dear Deene. I have been most distressed to hear of the sad loss suffered by one of our Board of Governors who is also a personal friend. I refer, of course, to Lady Pipford.” The headmaster looked aside narrowly at Carolus as he finished. “You are aware of what has taken place, I make no doubt?”
“Oh yes,” said Carolus as casually as possible.
“It is not only the loss,” went on the headmaster, “but the sad and violent circumstances of it. I feel we must offer to the bereaved lady our deepest sympathy, untainted by any curiosity in the matter. I trust I find you in agreement with me?”
Carolus dropped his words with an air of indifference.
“Margaret doesn’t need any sympathy,” he said. “She’s heartily glad to be rid of the fellow. So is Lanie.”
Mr. Gorringer stopped rather dramatically.
“I find that difficult to credit, my dear Deene. I am sure you would not speak flippantly in such a connection but really . . .”
“Perfectly true, I assure you. Darryl was a drip.”
“Am I to gather that you have already been up to Mincott House since the tragedy?” asked Mr. Gorringer, walking on.
Carolus knew that by now Hollingbourne would have got hold of The Times and the arm-chair in the window. He therefore resigned himself.
“Certainly,” he said.
“Not, I am sure, with any object but that of offering condolences? I am aware that in the past your faculty for a assembling evidence in cases of unexpected death, both historical and contemporary, has lead you into indiscretions which we both have cause to regret. I am not forgetting that on the last occasion, that of a murder distant from the school which in no way threatened its good name, I allowed myself actually to lend my presence to the dénouement. But in such a case as this, you will agree anything like inquisitiveness would be highly inappropriate, if not vulgar. I have sufficient confidence in your good taste and breeding to know that you would not be guilty of it.”
“I’m sorry, headmaster, but Margaret Pipford called me in. I have no alternative.”
This was clearly a shattering blow to Mr. Gorringer. His adhesions and principles became hopelessly torn.
“Lady Pipford called . . . you mean in order to clarify . . . but surely the authorities . . .”
Carolus had never heard the resounding loquacity of Mr. Gorringer disintegrate into such incoherence.
“The authorities, by which I presume you mean the police . . .”—Carolus saw the headmaster wince at the word––“. . . will probably suppose that it was suicide.”
Mr. Gorringer almost raised his hand defend himself from the blow which he now sensed was inevitable.
“And wasn’t it?” he asked in a low, fearful voice.
“No. Murder,” said Carolus briskly.
“You are surely being facetious, my dear Deene. You cannot possibly suggest anything so distressing to us all.”
“I’m afraid there’s very little doubt about it.”
“But if the authorities, and at their head the very Coroner, are about to find nothing but suicide, surely we should accept their findings without demur? To involve ourselves and those we respect in a fanciful theory of our own would be little short of ungentlemanly, I feel.”
“To leave my old friend Margaret Pipford with an unsolved murder in her house, when she has specifically appealed to me, would be quite cowardly.”
Mr. Gorringer clasped his hands behind his back under the folds of his gown and stooped as he walked as though in troubled meditation.
“I see, of course, that you owe a certain duty to Lady Pipford, one of the most active of our excellent Board of Governors. I know that, unfortunate though its results are apt to be, you have something of a conscience in these matters. I do not deny your remarkable facility in unravelling them. But I cannot help feeling that the good name of the Queen’s school would best be served by your discreet retirement from the scene. Surely, with a little effort of will, my dear Deene, you could find yourself in agreement with those who will reach less sensational conclusions?”
“Impossible, I’m afraid. The man was murdered.”
Mr. Gorringer grew lofty.
“And who, may I ask, do you suggest was guilty of this crime? Lady Pipford, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” said Carolus. “But there are other possibilities.”
A flush spread over Mr. Gorringer’s face.
“I must ask you not to speak to me in that specious way, Mr. Deene. You will be suggesting next that I killed Darryl Montaccord.”
“No one is ever excluded from suspicion by his character or position, headmaster, but I am bound to say that in this case the idea is a little far-fetched. You would have had no motive, and if the murderer entered by the scullery window, as seems likely, I don’t think it possible. But if you would like to exclude yourself once and for all from the case, perhaps you would tell me where you were at the time—about eleven o’clock on the night before last.”
Mr. Gorringer stopped again.
“This,” he said, “has gone far enough. No one could possibly suggest that I am lacking in a sense of humour. I have always been ready—too ready, indeed—to see what has been aptly called the lighter side of school life. But clowning of this kind, Mr. Deene, is out of place and disrespectful to me, And through me to the School.”
“I’m sorry, headmaster. But you did rather ask for it.”
“As for your investigations, since they have been required and authorized by Lady Pipford, I must bow to necessity. I trust, however, that you will allow no word of them to reach the boys and that in no eventuality will you become publicly identified with the case. On that much I insist.”
“I shan’t tell anyone what I’m doing,” replied Carolus.
“In that case there is nothing more to be said. I trust you will keep me informed, however. This matter is one of great moment to us all.”
“As soon as I am sure of who killed Darryl Montaccord, you shall know.”
The great bell which Mr. Gorringer had instituted was chiming for the end of Break when the headmaster walked away. Carolus regretfully made his way towards his classroom. An exhausting interview, he decided.
As soon as he reached his rostrum he was aware of an atmosphere of tension and intrigue in the class before him, the Senior Fifth. Not a word was spoken or a gesture made as he referred to his notes, but he knew this stillness and silence to be ominous rather than attentive and suspected a conspiracy.
“William Pitt accepted an earldom in 1766,” began Carolus, “but it was not, as other earldoms have been, the end of a career.”
The lesson went on. There was no sign of interruption as Carolus told of the great statemen’s and gout, resignation from office and dramatic reappearance in the House of Lords.
Carolus began to think that he had been mistaken in sensing something conspiratorial in his pupils’ manner and warmed to his subject. But exactly three quarters of an hour after the lesson had started, with a quarter of an hour to go before the bell, there was an interruption. Simmons, an earnest, bespectacled boy, was on his feet.
“Excuse me, Sir,” he said politely. “But there are only fifteen minutes to go.”
“I didn’t ask the time . . .” began Carolus.
“No, Sir. But we thought you’d like to be reminded of it.”
“I can’t see why,” returned Carolus.
“You see, we know where you spent yesterday afternoon, Sir. Your car was seen parked outside Mincott House.”
“Was it murder, Sir?” asked Simmons seriously. “Or just suicide?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Simmons,” retorted Carolus desperately.
Rupert Priggley could keep silent no longer.
“Perhaps you will allow me to explain, then, Sir? Simmons was talking about the death of Darryl Montaccord, which occurred about eleven o’clock on the night before last and which you are investigating. He asked you whether it was suicide or murder.”
“William Pitt, or the Earl of Chatham as he was now . . .”
“Forgive my interrupting you, Sir,” said Rupert Priggley. “But we have had forty-five minutes of William Pitt, and there are now only fourteen left for Darryl Montaccord. God knows we’ve earned them.”
“Was it murder, Sir?” persisted Simmons.
“Almost certainly,” he said. “There are too many things otherwise unaccounted for. You see, that night . . .”
The Upper Fifth settled down contentedly to the exposition which followed, and Carolus became quite absorbed in it.
“The whole thing seems to turn on that, he was saying ten minutes later. “Who opened the scullery window? Who removed the rum-and-milk glass?”
At this point Mr. Gorringer entered the classroom.
“Ah, Deene,” he said. Your question-time, I see. Pray don’t let me interrupt.”
The irrepressible Priggley put his hand up.
“Was there anything unnatural about his death?” he asked.
Carolus saw the headmaster’s face become flushed and his already protuberant eyes grow wide. It was clear that he believed he had caught Carolus in flagrante delicto at last, discussing murder with his class, perhaps the very murder he was investigating.
“William Pitt’s, I mean,” added Priggley when he had paused as long as he dared.
“It depends on what you mean by unnatural.” Carolus was not slow to clutch at the straw. “He fell backwards in a fit while speaking in the House of Lords, and a month later died at Hayes.”
Mr. Gorringer appeared to be relieved, and when the bell sounded approached Carolus.
“I want a word with you about the second period on Thursday morning . . .” he said, and became happily immersed in detail.
Carolus did not see the headmaster again that day, and at five o’clock, when his last period was finished, he hurried round to the garage for his car, intent on reaching Mincott as quickly as possible. To his expressed disgust, he found Rupert Priggley already seated in it.
“Out!” he said.
“Oh no, Sir. You can’t do that. I’ve already missed one days sleuthing.”
Carolus was too much in a hurry to argue, and drove out of the garage with the detestable Priggley beside him.
“Cigarette?” suggested Rupert.
“No, thanks. How are your parents?”
Carolus knew something of what the headmaster called ‘Priggley’s unfortunate home life’.
“I don’t really know,” said Rupert. “I haven’t seen them lately. Daddy’s never home much in the flat-racing season and Mummy’s taking a cure. She’s left her Brazilian, by the way. I gather he turned out to be a phoney. The diamonds he gave her were practically Woolworths. I didn’t dislike him, actually. Better than her last, anyway. Who do you think killed Darryl Montaccord?”
“Don’t ask silly questions. This is the house.”
“Who are we seeing?”
“I’m just going to tie up a few odds and ends.”
Poppy Munn opened the door.
“Hullo, Mr. Deene,” she said. “Lady Pip’s out, but she said you could do what you like. I’ll get you a drink.”
“Is Mrs. Montaccord in?”
“No, she left for London this morning.”
“Thanks. I’d like to wander round the house bit. They have taken the body away, I suppose?”
“Yes, and we’ve done the room. Nice cosy job. Oh, Nockings the gardener’s got something to tell you, I believe. I’ll send him in when you’re ready.”
Carolus left his coat in the hall and went first to Darryl’s room at the far end of the corridor. He stood for a long time looking at the bed, now spread with a clean bedspread it was as he remembered it, set so that a man lying it would have his left side to the wall and could be approached either from his right side or from his feet. The gun, he remembered, had been across the body, but the thumb of Darryl’s right hand was still on the trigger.
The suitcases had now been taken away, and in them, Carolus presumed, Darryl’s posting personal belongings, for there was nothing here more intimate than a bare dressing-table and empty cupboards. The blinds were drawn closely over the windows, as they had been on the night before last.
Carolus had not expected to find anything, and he did not do so, but as he gazed about him, watched by Rupert Priggley, he had an almost superstitious feeling that there had been a murder here. So easy and so safe. Someone could enter while the man was asleep, hold the gun in the position that Darryl would have held if he had wished to blow the top of his head off and fire. Just as possible, of course, for Darryl to have held it himself, but Carolus could not believe that had happened.
“It smells of murder,” he said.
“It smells of disinfectant, corrected Rupert.
They went along the corridor and opened each room as they passed. One had probably been occupied by Lanie, and the large bedroom at the other end of the house was Lady Pipford’s. It was the only room which had a bathroom attached to it.
Downstairs by the smoking-room fire Carolus poured himself a whiskey-and-soda, and when Poppy came in asked where Darryl would have heated the milk for his nightcap.
“In the kitchen, I should think. There’s nowhere else. He’d have used the electric heater.”
“Did he ever come out to the kitchen?”
“Not while I was there. He tried it once, and I told him where he got off.”
“There’s only one telephone in the house, isn’t there? No extension, I mean?”
“Only one. Lady Pip talked of having one, but didn’t in the end. Afraid of that creepy character listening in to her conversation, I suppose. Could you see Nockings now? He wants to get off.”
“I don’t blame him,” put in Rupert Priggley, his eyes on Poppy’s rather too splendid figure.
Poppy was content to give him what is called a Look.
When Nockings appeared he shewed no disposition to hurry; on the contrary, he was a slow-moving man with a solemn and deliberate manner of speech, a man to read through the leading articles in popular newspapers and hold forth on them in the saloon bar later, a man who believed he could weigh the rights and wrongs of things. He was tall, lantern-jawed, bald and long-headed.
“Good evening, Mr. Deene,” he said in a churchyard voice.
“Evening, Nockings. You’ve got something to tell me?”
“I have, but I should rather see you alone, if you don’t mind. It’s not something to discuss before the Young.”
Even Priggley seemed baffled by this and looked at Nockings as if to see whether it were a joke. But no, the face was grave. It was hard to believe that Nockings had ever smiled at a joke, and certainly, it seemed, he could never have made one.
“Very well,” said Carolus. “Priggley, run away, will you?”
“I’ll go and see that piece of homework who was here just now,” offered Rupert, and left the room.
“You live near the house?” asked Carolus.
“I’m the tenant of one of the new Council houses down the road, Mr. Deene. It takes me only a few minutes to get home on my bicycle.”
“You’ve been some time with Lady Pipford, haven’t you? Ever since I’ve been here, anyway.”
“Six years. When I came here the garden had been Let Go. I don’t think Lady Pipford has any reason to be dissatisfied with it now. I was reading in the paper the other night that the old style of gardner is going out. It will be a pity if that ever happens.”
“Yes. Now about this . . .”
You’ll understand, Mr. Deene, but I want no part nor parcel in this affair. I had my opinion of Mr. Montaccord, and I have my duty to Lady Pipford, who has always been a satisfactory employer. I have no wish to meddle and peddle in the affairs of others. Let me go my way and my neighbour his. The world would be a better place if . . .”
“Quite,” said Carolus firmly. “This information of yours?”
“I’m coming to that,” promised Nockings. “But I wanted you to know how I stand. I’m no Peeping Tom nor yet a Paul Pry. I believe in giving myself to myself. My wife is the same. She’s not a woman to go peering and speering, then prattle and twattle about it afterwards.”
“I think we can take for granted your wish to mind your own business, Nockings. And your wife’s.”
“Thank you, Mr. Deene. I have not given this information to the police. I am a law-abiding man, and I understand that the police have their duties the same as anyone else. They have to do their work—that’s only right. But when it comes to something of this sort I believe it is more a matter for the family. And when I told Lady Pipford about the glass . . .”
“Did you say the glass?” Carolus almost shouted.
Nockings raised a large hand.
“I shall be explaining that in a moment,” he said. “I was saying that when I told Lady Pipford about the glass she referred me to you. So I intend to give you all the details in my possession. I was reading in the paper . . .”
“When? At what time?” cried Carolus desperately.
Nockings deliberated on this.
“I see you’re in a hurry, Mr. Deene. I’ll come to the point at once then. On the night before last I was sitting with my wife in our little sitting-room having a read of the evening paper while she listened to something on the wireless. I don’t care much for a lot of the music they give; the old tunes are good enough for me. We’re going to get a television set when . . .”
“What time was this? On the night before last, I mean?”
“It was some time after ten o’clock, Mr. Deene. We usually go to bed about half-past ten, which is quite late enough when you’ve got to be up in the morning. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t made up the boiler—a thing I do regularly every evening. I told my wife that I should have to walk over to the house. I then put on my boots and overcoat . . .”
“You can’t be more exact about the time?” asked Carolus. A similar question had prodded Nockings to relevancy twice before and might work again.
“Not more exact than I have been. I reached the boiler-house . . .”
“Did you meet anyone?”
“No. But I saw a motor-car parked in the lane leading to the Manor. It was . . .”
“I was just going to say, it was too dark for me to recognize it.”
“Were there any lights on in the house?”
“None were visible. But Lady Pipford favours heavy curtains. I made up the boiler and started to walk home. Just as I reached my cottage I heard a shot.”
“It sounded as though it came from behind the house.”
“Did you investigate it at all?”
“No, Mr. Deene I did not. It was not part of my duties. Mr. Swillow is responsible for everything in the nature of gamekeeping. I do not believe in interfering in another’s work. Let each man attend to his own, I say. Mr. Swillow and I Don’t Speak. I am not going to say where the blame lies . . .”
“What time was it when you got indoors?”
“I can tell you that. It was just past eleven.”
“You said something about a glass.”
“That is another matter. This afternoon, acting on Lady Pipford’s instructions, I was clearing the beds just outside these french windows when I noticed among the Michaelmas daisies a tumbler. It was unbroken and had the remains of something dry and white in it. I reported the matter to Lady Pipford.”
“There had been Neglect, Mr. Deene. I do not like people to be careless about other people’s property. When I shewed it to Lady Pipford she smiled, though I’m bound to say I saw no cause for amusement. ‘Oh, Nockings,’ she said, ‘perhaps you’ve found a clue. Shew it to Mr. Deene when he comes.’ So here it is.”
Nockings handed Carolus the paper parcel he had been holding.
“Thanks,” said Carolus. “I shall have to give it to the police, though. They’ll examine it for fingerprints and analyse the contents, I expect.”
“That is a matter for you, Mr. Deene. I have done my duty. I’ve told you all I know.”
Not quite, thought Carolus, even in all that verbiage. To his great relief, at that moment Lady Pipford appeared, and Nockings followed an imaginary funeral from the room.