Dead for a Ducat
“Oh, Carolus, could you come up here immediately? Darryl’s dead, I’m afraid.”
The voice was beautifully controlled, a calm old lady’s voice. Carolus Deene, holding the telephone receiver, looked at his wrist-watch. He was as unmoved by the news as his informant.
“It’s a quarter to twelve,” he said.
“Is it really? As late as that? He shot himself, apparently.”
“Well, yes. About ten minutes ago.”
“Have you ’phoned the police?”
“You must do so at once. Really, Margaret, you are absurd about that. You can get yourself into serious trouble for not reporting a thing of this sort.”
The old lady’s voice did not waver.
“You can report it if you like. I shall have nothing to do with them.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I’ve told you. Come up here immediately.” Now there was something like a catch in her voice. “I’m alone in the house. I’ve seen . . . I’ve been to his room. It’s very horrible.”
“All right, Margaret. I’ll come at once. I’ll just get some clothes on and drive out. I should be with you in less than twenty minutes.”
“I’ll ’phone the police first.”
“That’s your affair.”
Carolus Deene dressed quickly. He had been asleep and his mind was a little torpid, but before he reached Mincott House it would be as alert and keen as ever.
He was in his early forties, a slim but powerful man. Blessed, or as he sometimes thought weighted, with a large private income, he continued in the work he had taken up after his war service as a parachutist: he remained a schoolmaster.
At the Queen’s School, Newminster, of which he was Senior History Master, Carolus was more popular with the pupils than with the staff, for his habit of dressing rather too well and driving his Bentley Continental at speed struck the staff as ostentatious and out-of-place in a fellow toiler. Carolus was conscious of this and went out of his way to shew himself as seriously concerned with keeping his job as they were, but the most he had achieved was civility in the Common Room.
The voice on the telephone, so remarkably cool considering the news it gave, was that of Lady Pipford, an old friend of his father and a woman remarkable for certain courageous exploits of hers in the past. Carolus had known her since his childhood and calculated that she must be over seventy. He also knew the man she referred to as Darryl—this was her son-in-law, Darry Montaccord.
Carolus finished dressing and ’phoned to the private house of his friend Detective Sergeant John Moore of the local CID. He repeated to him briefly what Lady Pipford had told him and said that they would probably meet at Mincott. Then he went out to the garage and in a few moments was on his four-mile journey.
He smiled, thinking that although he had not actually delayed reporting to the police, he had dressed before doing so. He would have ten minutes or a quarter of an hour in the house before they arrived.
This would not be the first time that Carolus had taken an interest in the violent death of someone known to him. If there were a ‘case’ here, in fact, it would be his third.
He had come to criminal investigation by a curious way. As a schoolmaster he had amused himself by inquiring into some of the great crimes of the far past and had produced a scholarly but highly entertaining book called Who Killed William Rufus? And other Mysteries of History. From the crimes of past centuries he had been drawn to the present and had successfully investigated a double murder in his own town* which had baffled his friend John Moore. In the following summer he had gone down to Oldhaven for his summer holidays and there met the Mayor, who shortly afterwards disappeared. It was to oblige the Mayor’s daughter that Carolus had once again inquired into the matter. When the Mayor’s body was washed up, Carolus refused to accept an ambiguous verdict, eventually proving that there had been a murder and naming the guilty man.†
So by now he was feeling almost an old hand. There was the first news of death or disappearance reaching him, perhaps, as this did through an old friend. Then the long and to him fascinating series of inquiries from the people who knew those involved, or might have seen or heard or suspected something, from those who came forward with information and those who held back, from servants or friends, callers or hostile observers, from everyone whose information might help him piece together the story.
This, at Oldhaven last summer, had been followed by a second and, as it still seemed to Carolus, an unnecessary death. Whenever he investigated again, he decided, he would do his utmost, and more than his utmost, to prevent a repetition of that.
He thought of the two people in the house towards which he was driving. Old Lady Pipford, small, white-haired and formidable, had been the first European woman to enter one of the Arabs’ holy cities. As a child she had been petted by the last savage queen of Madagascar, as a girl had visited the slave-market of Zanzibar. She had married a millionaire adventurer and had shot big game with him in Africa and India. She was reputed to have ridden in the ring of a Vienna circus and to have been the first woman to fly from the Canaries to Brazil.
Carolus had always liked her, but did not share the general awe of her. She was on the Board of Governors of his school, and it amused him to notice the rather pompous reverence with which she was treated by Mr. Gorringer, the tall and portly headmaster. A character, this Margaret Pipford, who looked in the distance like a pretty little old lady, but at close quarters became a feline whose voice could be something between a purr and a growl.
As for Darryl Montaccord, who had married Lady Pipford’s daughter Elaine, Carolus admitted frankly that he had always detested the fellow, a shambling, shifty, pale-faced man given to borrowing money and making mean and malicious remarks about those who lent it to him. Carolus found it hard to imagine him committing suicide, as it is always hard to imagine it of any thoroughly selfish and lazy person who manages to live at the expense of others. But this did not mean that suicide was impossible. All suicides seem incredible at first.
Mincott House was not enormous, it was Georgian, flat-fronted, well-proportioned. Lady pipford lived well, but with no state. A husband and wife who had been in her service for many years occupied a cottage some few hundred yards away, and Bert Swillow, the husband, looked after the two horses which were all Lady Pipford now allowed herself, while May Swillow was her cook-housekeeper. There was a daily girl from the village and a gardener. Comfort, but no grandeur.
As he entered the drive, Carolus saw that many lights were on. It was a dark, windy November night, and the house between its giant and ancient cedars looked alert, or even alarmed, rather than welcoming as its yellow oblongs shone against the darkness.
Lady Pipford opened the front door before he reached it, having seen his car arrive.
“Hullo, Carolus,” she said. “Nice of you to come. What a tiresome business! I can’t think what made the wretched man do it.”
“Sure he did ‘do it’?”
“Looks like it. I can’t think who else could have done. Though I must say I’ve just found the scullery window open.”
“Most unusual. The Swillows always lock everything most carefully before they leave . . .”
“What time is that?”
“As soon as they’ve washed up the dinner-things. Never later than nine.”
“Just before nine, I seem to remember. But don’t start making one of your cases of this, Carolus. Come and have a drink. I called you up because I don’t like being alone in the house with a son-in-law without a head.”
“As bad as that?”
“Quite as bad. He must have used buckshot.”
They went into the large room which for some reason was still called the smoking-room and Carolus noticed that there was a bright wood fire burning. The curtains here were drawn.
“I’ve just made it up,” said Lady Pipford, nodding at the fire. “Must keep the damp and cold out. Scotch?”
“Thank you. Yes. What time did you both go up to bed?”
“Darryl went about ten, I think. He was always first. He was leaving tomorrow, you know. I suppose I should say today. Yes, at last he was leaving. I can’t pretend I wasn’t delighted. Such a drear, that Darryl. I think he was going quite early in the morning. So he took himself off to bed earlier than usual. But I went up soon afterwards.”
“That was early for you, wasn’t it?”
Lady Pipford shrugged.
“I have no time, really. Sometimes I’m late, but tonight I was a bit tired. Darryl’s a tiring person. Was a tiring person, I should say.”
“You turned all the lights off?”
“Yes. As usual.”
“And this fire?”
“It had died down enough to be safe.”
“Were you in this room when Darryl went up?”
“Did he leave the door open?”
“Probably. He had no consideration. Why?”
“I was wondering if you heard him go upstairs.”
“I don’t really remember”
“It would be interesting to know when he took the gun up. If he had kept it in his room for some time, this may be an old idea of his. On the other hand, if he came down for it tonight, it is likely to be more spontaneous. You didn’t notice that he went to the gun-room after leaving you, I suppose?”
Lady Pipford hesitated. For the first time there was something a little perplexed or dubious in her face.
“No, Carolus,” she said at last. “I can’t remember which way he went, if I ever knew. Now kindly stop asking me questions. If you want to be a detective, go and look at the corpse. That’ll put you off these tricks for some time, I should think.”
“And don’t ask me if it has been touched. I was alone in the house with it for half an hour, and if you think I could touch anything like that, you’re crazy.”
“Which was Darryl’s room?”
“Last door on the left at the far end of the landing.”
“Thanks. I shan’t be long.”
Carolus went slowly upstairs. There was a heavy stillness in the house which he found oppressive, that stillness which is not empty and natural, but pregnant and waiting. It was as though round him, out of sight, were watchers and listeners.
When he reached Darryl’s room and opened the door he found that the light had been left on, and he could see the very gruesome thing which had been a man and the scarlet-dappled bed which had been white. He gave no more than a casual look at the position of the gun at the man’s right side—that, after all, would be police work. Experts would examine it and say whether it were consistent with suicide.
As thought to satisfy his conscience rather than his curiosity, he looked round the room. He saw the dead man’s clothes sloppily tumbled into a chair and observed that he had been wearing pyjamas. He mentally listed the objects on the bed-side table: wrist-watch, pocket-case, cigarette lighter, cigarette-case and loose change. He saw that a number of suitcases were half-packed.
There was no other door from the room. A large cupboard in the wall seemed rather empty, as though Darryl had already taken most of his belongings.
All this gave Carolus a strange but insistent impression of something that might almost be called restfulness in the room—in spite of that ghastly thing on the bed. Nowhere did he see signs of insomnia or movement, the things found in the bedrooms of those who can’t sleep. The man’s dressing-gown had presumably been packed, also his bedroom slippers. The shoes he had worn yesterday held his socks and were thrown down by his clothes. There were no bottles, there was no tumbler. If he had risen in the night, it looked as though he had remained in pyjamas and bare feet.
Then Carolus glanced at the door and, stooping down, examined the empty key-hole with some care.
At last he returned to Lady Pipford.
“Well, what do you think of it?” she asked directly.
“I don’t know. It will take an expert to say whether or not it was suicide.”
“Can they tell?”
“They can certainly tell whether it could have been.”
Just then his eyes fell on a glass on another table, a glass that had the white film of milk dried in it.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It must be Darryl’s. He had a rum-and-hot-milk tonight.”
“At what time?”
“Really, Carolus, you almost bully me. Just before going up to bed.”
“Did he heat it himself?”
“Margaret, my dear, I know you’re tired and have had a shock . . .”
“It wasn’t a shock exactly. The shot sounded deafening, of course. It woke me, yet I seemed to hear to it all. You know what I mean? I woke up hearing it, not after it. And then the sight of Darryl, as you have seen, was most unpleasant. But it wasn’t a shock, as it would have been if it was someone I loved. I did not love my son-in-law.”
“Well, I’ll just say you’re tired. But could you answer a few questions for me before the police arrive?”
“I’ll try, Carolus. But I’m not seeing any policeman tonight. You’ve sent for them—you can deal with them. I’m going to bed when they come. What do you want to know?”
“First, is there a key to Darry’s room?”
“Yes. Isn’t it there?”
“It isn’t, and that’s rather strange, I think. A man about to commit suicide would want to lock his door. Then, do you know whether he left his room after going to bed this evening?”
“Yes, I do. He came and woke me up. He wanted some of my sleeping-tablets. He said he could not get to sleep.”
“What time was that?”
“I have no idea. I did not switch on the light. He stood in the doorway and I told him my tablets were in the bathroom next door. I heard him rattling about in there and then go off to bed. I’d just got off to sleep again when I heard the shot.”
“So you don’t know what he was wearing?”
“Wearing? No. I didn’t see him at all.”
“Could you hear whether or not he wore slippers?”
“Are your tablets large?”
“Could he have swallowed them without water?”
“Not very easily.”
“There’s a glass in your bathroom, of course. Did you hear him run a tap?”
“I don’t remember. And what can it possibly matter? He shot himself, didn’t he?”
“He may have. Have you looked at your sleeping tablets since?”
“No. And now . . .”
“Would you know how many had gone?”
“I shouldn’t have the slightest idea. And that is enough for tonight, my dear Carolus. I’m going to bed.”
She stood up and he opened the door for her.
“I’ll wait for the police,” he said. “And sleep the rest of tonight on the settee. So you’ll know I’m here if you want me.”
“Thank you, Carolus. I knew I could rely on you. So like your father. But he would not have kept me up answering questions.”
She started to climb the stairs. Just as she did so the front door bell sounded.
“All right,” Carolus told her. You go to bed. I’ll deal with the police.”
He hurried out to the door, which was at the other end of the house. It was some moments before he opened it, for Lady Pipford had replaced the bolts and chain when she had admitted him. He found Detective Sergeant John Moore with another man and admitted them. Their greetings were somewhat restrained, for although Moore and Carolus were friends of some years’ standing, the CID man was apt to resent Deene’s presence on the scene of something he had to investigate.
Carolus shewed them where to hang their coats and led them to the room he had just left. The door was open, and as soon as Carolus approached he was aware of a chill and draught which had not been there a few moments ago and realized that the french windows were open.
He looked sharply round the room. All seemed unchanged. Then he observed that the filmy glass which had held rum-and-milk was missing.
“What’s the matter?” asked John Moore suspiciously.
“Nothing,” said Carolus, closing the french windows. “Nothing at all.”
But before settling down with the two detectives he said, “I’m afraid Lady Pipford’s gone to bed. She’s tough, but not that tough. I’ll just go and tell her you’re here, though.”
He ran upstairs and knocked at her door. He was relieved to hear her voice.
“It’s no use, Carolus. I’m not going to see anyone else tonight,” she said.
He rejoined the two detectives.
❦* At Death’s Door, by Leo Bruce (Hamish Hamilton).
† Death of Cold, by Leo Bruce (Peter Davies).