Dead for a Ducat
“Ah, Deene,” the headmaster’s voice was a lasso which caught Carolus and dragged him back as he was almost through the school gates next day. How has your little investigation been progressing?”
“According to schedule,” said Carolus.
“I hear the Coroner returned his verdict today.”
“You have the news very quickly.”
This delighted Mr. Gorringer.
“Things reach my ears occasionally, Deene. I flatter myself that I’m not wholly unaware of what takes place about me. Yes, suicide while the balance of his mind was disturbed, poor fellow. In the circumstances the kindest verdict. But I fear me by no means a welcome one to you?”
“Because, Deene, I’ve not been held to avoid the impression that you positively enjoy your incursions into the world of bloodshed. You will not be pleased that in this case your inquiries are terminated.”
“I’m only just beginning.”
“But surely this closes the matter? A Coroner’s verdict––it would be flying in the face of Providence to dispute it. Come now, Deene. Admit that in this case you’re wrong. Take your medicine. Return to the crimes of history. There is the extraordinary story of George Duke of Clarence awaiting your elucidation. Necromancy, my dear Deene. Does your heart not leap to the word?”
“No, headmaster. I prefer practicalities. I should like to know, for instance, whether you noticed anything that struck you as strange on the evening when you dined with Lady Pipford.”
“Strange? I perceive, my dear Deene, that I, too, am to be drawn into the net of your inquiries. Even your headmaster is not exempt from your probing. Well, I will afford what information I can. Since you insist on continuing with this private inquest single-handed, and since Lady Pipford supports your pretensions, I have no remedy but to respond. The dinner party. Ah yes. Strange indeed.”
“In what way, headmaster?”
“First the guests. I do not seek to belittle the Cloth but I find Mr. Fleece an over-exuberant individual, one might almost say rowdy. Indeed, my wife, who has some reputation for wit, for the ready bon mot and the jeu d’esprit, was quite overpowered by his bombinations. Then an extraordinary lady from the village. I rarely notice women’s garb, but even I could see that this was outré. She spoke exclusively of gardening and her manufacture of preserves and products from the things grown in the countryside. But most noteworthy of all was the behaviour of our hostess.”
“At first she was uncommunicative in the extreme, and Mr. Fleece whispered to me in what he supposed was an undertone that she had received bad news. Later she talked to all of us, while reserving a frigid hauteur towards her son-in-law.”
“I did not relish the prospect of the ladies leaving us, for I should have found myself with the Vicar and Montaccord. But to my surprise nothing of the kind happened. Lady Pipford lit a cigarette and kept her place at the table, and my wife and the Vicar’s and the lady from the village perforce remained with her while we drank brandy and smoked cigars. I was told afterwards that this is Lady Pipford’s invariable custom.
“Is it really?”
“The table was littered with sweetmeats of every kind. A surfeit of such things. Otherwise an excellent dinner. We had drunk a splendid bottle of claret. Lady Pipford keeps quite a cellar.”
“Do you mean literally? A cellar under the house?”
“Certainly. She described her descents to it.”
“I never knew that,” said Carolus thoughtfully.
“I trust that what I have told you will be of assistance to you in your researches?”
“Yes. Thank you. Now I must run out to Mincott.”
“More interrogation, I make no doubt?”
“Ah well. I voice no further protest. So long as Lady Pipford requires your aid. . . .”
Rupert Priggley was once more in the car, and Carolus, who could not lose time, allowed him to remain. He backed out, then drove slowly through the town. He was thinking of what the headmaster had told him.
“You look fagged out,” said Rupert. “Has the headmaster been having a word with you?”
“What an elephantine bore he is! Where are we going?”
“I want to talk to Swillow. We’ll see if he’s at the house.”
Lady Pipford received them and asked Carolus at once whether he meant to drop the case now that the Coroner had given his findings.
“No. It’s interesting.”
“I’m glad to find Darryl’s death interests someone. His life certainly didn’t.”
They were interrupted by the entrance of Mrs. Swillow. She twined herself in at the door and stood looking like an ungainly statue of Grief.
“May I speak to you m’lady?”
“He’s Gone, m’lady.”
“Oh dear! Again?”
This question seem to arouse resentment.
“It’s just on the month,” Mrs. Swillow pointed out.
“Is it really? It seems less. Do you want to go and look for him?”
“It’s no good!” cried Mrs. Swillow. “When he Goes, he Goes.”
“I know. So tiresome! What was it this time?”
“Nothing. There was nothing out of the way. He just Went. One minute he was sitting there as though butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, next minute he was Gone.”
“You’d better stay here tonight.”
“Oh, I don’t know whether I could. It’s so Awful, isn’t it? I don’t really know what to do. First Mr. Darryl, now this. I’m so upset. It doesn’t bear thinking about. You never know where . . .”
“Well, you think it over, May. If you want to stay, you can.”
“Thank you, m’lady. She began her encircling movement around the door. “I shall have to see. Your dinner’s all right, anyway. I’d got that on before I knew.”
When at last the door was closed, Lady Pipford turned smiling to Carolus.
“This happens about once a month. Swillow goes off for an evening at the local.”
“Seems very harmless.”
“Not to his wife. She takes it to heart, as you see. I gather he behaves rather badly sometimes.”
“Pickled?” suggested Rupert.
“Drunk,” preferred Lady Pipford.
“I wanted to see him, as a matter of fact,” Carolus told her.
“You’ll find him in the Bull. You can leave this boy here to entertain me with his pretty chatter.”
Carolus made for the door. “Did you hear the one about . . .” he heard the impossible Priggley begin.
He found Swillow in the public bar of the Bull, a little stocky man with short sandy hair and a thin mouth. They knew one another, and beyond a nod exchanged no greetings. Carolus bought his drink and sat beside Swillow in silence. Thus they remained for several minutes, both perfectly content, it seemed, to relax and sip and not be bothered with their surroundings or one another.
Carolus knew that at any time Swillow was a man of few words, and did not press for these till the two glasses were empty.
“Pint?” he suggested.
“Um,” assented Swillow.
Carolus returned from the counter.
“Cheerio,” he said.
“Ah,” replied Swillow amiably.
“Cold,” said Carolus.
“Windy, corrected Swillow. Then, without looking at Carolus, he added the question, “Did She send you?”
This seemed to give Swillow a good deal to think about, for he said nothing for several minutes.
“She tell you was here?” he asked at last.
“No. Lady Pipford did.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Don’t know anything.”
Fairly started now, Carolus grew bolder.
“Did he ever leave the house?”
“Round to Boater’s sometimes.”
“Ever leave Mincott?”
“Not often. Went into Newminster about three weeks ago. I know because I had to drive the ——”
“What about London?”
“When was the last time?”
“Few days before I took him into Newminster.”
“What did he go to London for?”
“Went to see Mr. Jason. Went to where he works. So She told me.”
“He intended to leave Mincott next day.”
“Put it off.”
“Put it off? When?”
“We heard about six.”
“Don’t know. She said he’d never go.
“Who told you about it?”
“She did. She’d heard from Lady Pipford.”
“Was Lady Pipford vexed?”
“Um.” This was clearly affirmative, because a moment later, when Carolus suggested another drink, he was answered by the same sound.
When Carolus had brought their glasses they drank, this time without preliminaries.
“Why do you think you were told?”
“Was to have met Jason at Newminster.”
Carolus took care to shew no interest in this rather startling statement.
“And didn’t you?”
“How was that?”
“He put it off.”
“Because the other did.”
“So Jason was coming down to see Darryl off the premises?”
“Something like that.”
“And when Darryl decided to stay on, he put off coming down.”
“Hasn’t Jason a car?”
“No. Won’t drive.”
“I suppose he could have come down that night, after all.”
“But as far as you know he didn’t?”
“You do what gamekeeping there is to do for Lady Pipford?”
“Did you go out that night?”
“Get up at all?”
“Did your wife?”
“She may have.”
“Do you know whether she did?”
“Let the cat in.”
“But you saw her go?”
“No. Come back.”
It was evident that in spite of of his taciturnity Swillow had a literal mind.
“You woke up to see you coming back into the room?”
“And she said she’d been to let the cat in?”
“Neither of you heard the shot?”
“Nockings says he did.”
“’Ypocrite,” said Swillow shortly.
“He says you weren’t on speaking terms.”
“Knock his block off.”
“Can’t mind his own business.” Then in full explanation he added the word “Pheasants!” and was silent again.
“Thank you for all you’ve told me,” said Carolus, feeling that it sounded fulsome.
“Other half?” suggested Swillow.
Swillow brought their drinks.
“I suppose She’s carrying on?” he questioned verbosely.
“Mrs. Swillow is a bit upset.”
Suddenly, incredibly, from beside him Carolus heard an extraordinary sound, half rumble, half croak. Swillow was laughing.
His good-humour was such that when a good-looking young man entered he vouchsafed to Carolus a word of explanation.
“Ed Bretton,” he said. “Poppy’s fellow.”
Eddy Bretton came straight across. There were several other men in the bar, but he seemed delighted to see Carolus’s companion.
“Hullo, Mr. Swillow,” he said heartily. “How’s tricks?”
“Oright,” returned Swillow.
“On another bender, are you? Remember the last time?”
Bretton turned to Carolus.
“That your car outside?” he asked.
“Smasher. What’ll she do?”
A long technical conversation followed, in which Eddy Bretton shewed himself knowledgeable and Carolus gave him the information he wanted. But when there was a pause Carolus asked him a flat and pertinent question.
“What did you think of Darryl Montaccord?”
Bretton smoke bluntly, blasphemously and bawdily for some moments and ended with what seemed like an indiscretion.
“I could have killed the bastard,” he said.
“But you didn’t?” asked Carolus quietly.
“What d’you mean? It was suicide, wasn’t it?”
“That’s what the Coroner says.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“You think someone done for him?”
“Then make it look as though he shot himself?”
“Well, I’m damned! Who do you think it was?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t think it was me, do you?”
“I’ve no reason to think so. But you had a motive of a sort.”
Eddy Bretton looked steadily at Carolus.
“Are you joking?” he asked.
“Well, it wasn’t me. I can tell you that.”
“You were out at the time, though.”
“Yes. With Poppy.”
“You didn’t get home till one o’clock.”
Eddy Bretton grinned.
“Have a heart, Mr. Deene. We went for a run. We’re engaged, good as.”
“I know. Which way did you go?”
“Nowhere near Mincott House?”
“No. Poppy has enough of that in the daytime.
Carolus distrusted coincidences, and here was a very odd one. At the time of Darryl’s death three of the people directly or remotely concerned with him were, they claimed, driving about in motor-cars miles from the house in which he died, Eddie Britain and Poppy towards Mapperley, Elaine Montaccord on the Great North Road. A windy November night too, he remembered.
“Dam’ silly if you start suspecting me,” said Eddy Bretton good-humouredly. I thought he was a slob, and I often said I’d like to wring his neck for trying to put his paws on my girl. But that doesn’t mean I’d have done it. Anyway, the police say it was suicide.”
“You did any car repairs necessary for Lady Pipford, didn’t you? And the family?”
“Always have done. Ever since I was at the garage, I checked Mrs. Montaccord’s before she went back to London yesterday morning.”
“What cars were among them?”
“Lady Pipford’s Austin. She drove it herself as well as Mr. Swillow. Mrs. Montaccord’s Morris. That’s all.
“Could Darryl Montaccord drive?”
“Yes, but she never let him. Jason Pipford couldn’t. He didn’t like anything to do with motor-cars, he said. Except sometimes a taxi.”
“It appears that a car was parked near the house that night. In the lane running to the cottages occupied by Swillow and Nockings. It was too dark to recognize it. Any suggestions?”
Eddy Bretton appeared to think.
“Not really,” he said. “There’s not many cars in the village. Mr. Boater’s got a Ford. The doctor has a Standard. One or two of the farmers have cars. Of course it may have been a couple necking, but you wouldn’t think they’d choose that lane on a dark November night. I just don’t know, Mr. Deene. It wasn’t mine, anyway.”
“All right. Thanks for your information. Good night, Swillow.”
“Um,” said Swillow.
Carolus left them together.