Dead for a Ducat
At ten o’clock that evening John Moore came to bring distressing news to Carolus. There had been another death at Mincott.
It was a wet night, dark and gusty, and Moore was evidently glad to sit by the fire and swallow a stiff drink before talking. His shoes and the bottoms of his trousers were wet and muddy and he looked chilled. But he had a natural wish to keep his end up, to avoid admitting himself in the wrong.
“You remember what I told you? I said that if you were right, Carolus, and Darryl was murdered, it could only be the work of a homicidal maniac. I prophesied them that, in that case, we should have another corpse on our hands. Well, we’ve got it.”
“May Swillow. She was poisoned this afternoon.”
“I’m very sorry,” Carolus said sincerely.
“I don’t know which of us is most to blame. I feel very bad indeed about it. Anxious, too. When you get one of these fiends murdering without a motive, you can’t tell where it will stop. We may have more unless we can identify the murderer of these.”
“You’re convinced they were both the work of the same person?”
“Yes, I think so. Murderers are not as common as all that. You would not expect two to be in Mincott at the same time, surely?”
“On the other hand,” said Carolus, “there could scarcely be two murders differing more widely in method than these, could there?”
“Perhaps not. But in the same household.”
“What poison was used?” asked Carolus.
“The doctor who examined the body has made no official report yet, but he told me privately that it looks like cyanide of potassium, which means instant death.”
“Where was she found?”
“In the smoking-room. Lady Pipford went in there soon after six o’clock and found her on the floor quite dead. Lady Pipford trying to get hold of you, I gather, and finding you were out, she ’phoned Dr. Tom. He ’phoned me.”
“In what part of the room was the body lying?”
“Near the fireplace. But the most interesting and extraordinary thing is that it was moved. Clear evidence of that in the pile of the carpet and the woman’s clothes. Someone dragged her a little way after she was dead.
“Do you know the original position?”
“More or less. Near the bureau.”
“Oh!” Carolus let out an unguarded exclamation. “Oh, I see!”
John Moore seized on it.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Perhaps nothing. Is there anything to shew what she was doing in the room?”
“She had come in for the tea-tray. Lady Pipford had tea alone today, and very late. When she went upstairs after it, May Swillow came in for the tray and to tidy up the room.”
“Had she picked up the tray?”
“No. It was just where Lady Pipford had left it.”
“Any food on it?”
“Not much. The old lady had a healthy appetite. There was some bread and butter. Nothing in which the poison could have been. But May Swillow had a packet of chocolates in her pocket. We’re having them analysed, and naturally there will be a post-mortem.”
“Did you ask Lady Pipford about the moving of the body?”
“She knew nothing about it, of course. When she found it, it was near the fireplace.”
“Any sign of any other person having been in the room?”
“The french windows were not bolted. Otherwise nothing.”
“Who was known to be in the house?”
“Poppy Munn and Swillow.”
“These chocolates she had in her pocket. Do you know where they came from?”
“Yes. Bunt’s in the village.”
“Sold by weight?”
“So you can tell how many of them she had eaten?”
“We shall be able to. We haven’t got round to that yet.”
“One more question, John. You say that Mrs. Swillow and Daryl Montaccord were both murdered by the same person. Have you any suspicion of who that could be?”
“Frankly, none whatever. You know as well as I do what the text-books say about homicidal maniacs. They nearly all live among us as ordinary members of society. They may have this or that little characteristic or oddity, but there’s no mark of Cain, unfortunately. Some respected man or woman, some perfectly good citizen, with just this hideous kink that no one conceive or would be able to distinguish if he could see it. It’s frightening to think of it.”
“I believe,” Carolus said, “that it may suddenly arise in someone who has always been quite gentle and amiable, may break out like a disease without warning.”
“Not only without warning, but without any visible symptoms. They go on leading lives which are normal in every other respect. So that a fiend, a really frightful fiend, whose obsession is to cause death may continue to chatter and enjoy his or her food, play the piano, read the paper, watch television, while all the time his hands are—almost literally—red.”
“So you think it might be anyone.”
“Anyone. It might be one of the people of the household––Lady Pipford herself, perhaps, Swillow, Poppy Munn or Nockings. It might be someone local like the Vicar or his wife, Boater, Bretton or Alicia Crick. It might be one of the family who had come from a distance without our knowledge, like Jason or Lanie Pipford. It might be a Newminster man or woman, Mr. or Mrs. Gorringer, Dr. Tom or yourself. It might be someone with no connection with the family who was just chosen that house as the scene of his murders. It might be almost anyone, for when there is no reasonable motive the first and best means of identifying the murderer is gone. No one sane could have motives for murdering both Darryl Montaccord and May Swillow.”
“I agree with your last statement, anyway.”
“But not with my whole argument?”
“Not altogether. Tell me, John, how did Lady Pipford take this?”
“Very badly. I’ve never seen her so upset. A different thing altogether from her behaviour when Montaccord was found. It was almost as though she blamed herself in some way.
“What on earth do you mean?”
“It’s hard to explain. I don’t mean, of course, that she suggested by anything she said that she was directly responsible, but I somehow got the impression that she thought this might have been avoided. That old lady knows more than I can get her to say. Perhaps you will be successful.”
“I doubt both of those, but I’ll try, certainly. Interesting, what you say about her manner. How about the others?”
“Poppy Munn had the grace to cry a little. She has given her notice in, and says she’s not going up to the house tomorrow. I don’t altogether blame the girl. Know one knows who will be the next.”
“Hard to say. He’s a taciturn brute. But I think probably he feels it very deeply. Nockings is pompous about it, naturally, but I think he, too, is sincerely sorry. She wasn’t a bad soul, May Swillow. No one dislike her. Which makes it plainer still that we’re dealing with a maniac.”
“It’s very good of you to let me in on all this, John.”
John Moore looked straight at Carolus.
“To tell you the truth,” he said, “I’m glad to have someone to talk to about it. You know I don’t like you pushing in on my cases, Carolus, but you have got a sort of instinct for the truth. I admit I couldn’t see Darryl’s death as anything but suicide at the time. I wish to heaven I had. It makes me feel guilty over this. And as I tell you, I am anxious.”
“Yes. Would you like me to try to persuade Lady Pipford to go away for a time?”
“I doubt if you can. I suggested today that she should close the house till we know where we are, but she said ‘Nonsense!’ and wouldn’t discuss it. She’s tough.”
“She belongs to a tough generation.”
“I suppose she thinks it would be running away.”
They were silent for a time.
“Tell me, Carolus, had you any presentiment of this? Even the faintest reason to anticipate another death?”
“It’s hell, isn’t it? They’ll call the Yard in now, and I score a black mark. I don’t mind that so much, but I hate to feel that May Swillow should have died because I was not clever enough for the murderer.”
“Have another drink, John. It’s a rotten business, I agree. I feel as much to blame as you.”
“Thanks. I hate a poisoner—mad or sane. I’m going to work on this as I’ve never worked before.”
“I only ask you one thing. When you get the results of the post-mortem will you let me know them—In general terms, of course?”
“Yes. I’ll do that. But I don’t think they’ll tell us much. Our man was pretty sure it was cyanide.”
“Have you had a report on the contents of that tumbler I sent you?”
“Yes. Rum-and-milk, and nothing else.”
“Can one be sure of that? I mean, I don’t know much about it, but was there enough in that film of milk to analyse successfully and surely?”
“Heaps. Nowadays they don’t need even so much. No sleeping-pills. Nothing but rum-and-milk.”
“How very odd!”
When John Moore left him, Carolus sat by his fire, his body quite motionless, is eyes fixed on the embers before him. He had a trick of almost yogi-like motionlessness when he was thinking deeply.
He felt strongly now that somewhere, very close, was the solution of this ugly business, that something was just eluding him which would reveal it all. He wanted desperately to find it.
Carolus was far more distressed by Moore’s news than he had shewn to the CID man. He had been almost complacent about the case till now—the murder of a rather dull and useless man who seemed to be regretted by no one. He had taken it easily, asking his questions and making his notes in an almost leisurely way, confident that he would find his solution in good time. Then suddenly—this second death.
He had anticipated nothing of the sort. Indeed, he realized now, he had been far too casual about the safety of others. An arm-chair mystery, a mere crossword puzzle of a crime it had been. So this poor woman, who had seemed no more than an odd and histrionic person, was dead.
Besides, it changed the whole aspect of the thing. It obliterated the beginnings of a theory he had been forming. It made him see the case is something far more sinister and dangerous. He determined that tomorrow he would set about it with real zest.
It was strange that Margaret Pipford had not telephoned him again. Moore said she had tried this afternoon, but he had been in since about six-thirty, and would have expected to hear from her. Her call to him on the night of Darryl’s death had not been unprecedented as an appeal for his help in some—till then, smaller—crisis. Why, he wondered, had she not left a message asking him to come out once? He decided that tomorrow morning he would go early to Mincott. It was Sunday, and he could miss the school chapel.
That was what he did. It was ten o’clock when he rang the bell.
The door was opened by Alicia Crick.
“I’ve rallied round,” she explained. “The Munn girl panicked and fled. Someone had to look after Lady Pipford. We country spinsters have our uses. She’s terribly put out.”
“So I hear.”
“The Swillows have been with her for ages, you know, and May Swillow, in her aghast sort of way, was fond of Lady Pipford.”
“And Lady Pipford of her?”
“I think so. You know what she is. She never shews of feelings much. I’ll tell her you’re here.”
It was nearly half an hour before Lady Pipford appeared, and when she came into the room she was unsmiling and subdued.
“I’m very, very sorry,” Carolus said.
“She had been with me eight years,” said Lady Pipford. “We were fond of one another in a way. It’s a terrible thing to happen.”
“And what are the police doing?” asked the old lady passionately. “How do they come to let a thing like this happen? They questioned May Swillow only a few days ago. Can’t they prevent . . .”
“You weren’t very helpful to them over Darryl’s death, were you?”
“I told them all they wanted to know.”
“You weren’t altogether frank with me.”
“In what way?”
“You did not tell me that Darryl had postponed his departure for Brighton.”
“Oh, that. I don’t remember now, but I expect it seemed too unimportant. But I answered every question the police asked me. Can’t they find out about these things?”
“They believe that we are dealing with a homicidal maniac. Someone who kills without a motive for the pleasure of killing.”
“No one can have had a motive for killing poor May. She was in some ways a silly woman, but she harmed nobody.”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions, Margaret.”
“No, Carolus. Not about this. I did not mind your amusing yourself by theorizing about Darryl’s death, but I won’t have it with May’s.”
“I’m sorry you should feel like that. I certainly wasn’t amusing myself. I regard murder, even when it’s of Darryl Montaccord, as a very serious thing. I want to find the truth about both these deaths.”
“Well, don’t come to me for it. You haven’t the best of intentions, I am sure, but meanwhile my poor May has being killed.
“You know, Margaret, but the police believe there may be more deaths, possibly in your house. Don’t you think you should go away for a time?”
“Certainly not. I’ve never run away in my life.”
“You’ve never been up against a poisoner.”
“I shall stay here. Alicia Crick will stay with me, and I’ve sent for Jason.”
“I know it’s useless to try to persuade you. You’re an incredibly pig-headed woman, my dear Margaret. But I have warned you.”
“As I say, you mean well; but this is my house, and I stay in it. Now don’t let us talk any more about it.”
“You won’t answer my questions?”
“At least you don’t mind my getting some information from Swillow and Nockings?”
“If you can. But I wish you’d leave the whole thing alone. The police will find out the truth.”
“Yes. I’m afraid they will,” said Carolus, and left his old friend to think over the cryptic rejoinder.
In the kitchen he found Alicia Crick and, with an apron on, the gardener Nockings. Miss Crick was busy at the table with a quantity of vegetables and herbs, apparently quite happy. Nockings looked solemn.
“At a time like this,” he informed Carolus, “it needs all of us to lend a hand. I told my wife this morning I should go up and see if I could help. I’m not the man to eat the bread of idleness when others are toiling and moiling. Especially when there has been a Loss.”
“Yes. When did you last see Mrs. Swillow, Nockings?”
“To speak to, you mean? It must have been before I went home to dinner that day. I’m pleased to say that the bone of contention between me and her was buried some days earlier. It would be terrible if we’d been jangling and wrangling when she was Taken. But a few days ago I went to her and said it was a pity while we were both working in the same place that they should be the apple or discord between us, and we agreed to let bygones be bygones. I said to my wife . . .”
Alicia Crick interrupted this.
“Mr. Deene,” she said. “Do you know the sort of thing Lady Pipford likes to eat? It’s so hard to know. I’ve just made a little fish-and-oatmeal pie with some parsnip cutlet and a sardine mould for tonight. I’ve brought some of my marsh-marigold capers—there wasn’t one in the house. Do you think that will be all right?”
“I understand that Lady Pipford is very fond of sweet things,” said Carolus.
“A rose-petal-jam tart, then,” said Alicia quick ecstatically. Or an orange-vermicelli pudding? I could whip up a lemon-meringue pie.”
“I’m sure she will be delighted. You were just going to tell me, Nockings, when you had last spoken to Mrs. Swillow.”
“Yes, it was that dinner-time. I had put on my jacket to go home, and came up to the backyard to get my bicycle from the place where I always keep it, when Mrs. Swillow called me across. ‘Are you going through the village?’ she said. I had to call at the Vicarage to say that I could not attend the bell-ringing practice that night, so I said yes, I should be. ‘Pop into Buntses for me,’ she said, ‘and get me a quarter of a pound of those little coconut squares he’s got, will you?’ and she gave me the money. I knew she liked a bit of something sweet, just as her ladyship does. Like mistress, like maid, as they say.”
“And did you get the sweets?”
“Well, Mr. Deene, I did as she required. I went to the shop and asked for the sweets she wanted, but Mr. Bunt informed me that there were none left, and on his advice I bought her some chocolates instead. I brought them back and left them on the kitchen table, because she was out of the room at the time. I never saw her again, and I’m very sorry about it. I’ve expressed my sympathy with Mr. Swillow now that he’s been Left Alone. It’s very sad to think of it. She was a woman who could take an interest in the garden, too. I remember last year her saying about the delphiniums. Well, they were a Show, mind you.”
“No scent,” said Alicia Crick, looking up from the task of grating orange-peel. “I can’t spare the room in my teeny garden for anything unscented.”
“That is as maybe,” conceded Nockings, “I was saying that Mrs. Swillow remarked on mine last summer. A picture, she said they were.”
“I take it the chocolate you brought her were the ones found in her pocket?”
“That’s right. I have already identified the packet for the police. In so far as I was able to do so, that is. I couldn’t swear it was the same, of course, but it seems only right to think so. I’m not a man to go shouting and spouting about a thing when I can’t be sure of it.”
“Have you had an opportunity of talking to Lady Pipford about it?”
“Yes, Mr. Deene. When I went to do my boiler last night I met Lady Pipford. She was a little upset at meeting me, because it shewed that she didn’t trust me to do my work, as of course she could have done. She’d been to inspect my boiler, though she has never done such a thing before. I said nothing about that, but told her how sorry I was about Mrs. Swillow.”
“Well, thank you.”
“I’m pleased to have been of any small service, Mr. Deene. I know yours is a difficult task and I hope you are successful in it. I was reading in the paper about . . .”
He was interrupted by the entrance of Swillow. Carolus tried to say something sympathetic, but Swillow was as unapproachable in grief, if he felt grief, as he was under other emotions. It was impossible to know how he was taking the tragedy even when he made his one I think your comment.
“I told her not to eat so many sweets,” he said.