Dead for a Ducat
Lady Pipford was followed into the room by Rupert Priggley.
“My dear Carolus,” she said. “Have you had a successful afternoon?”
“He’s going to go all enigmatic,” he said. “Such a bore when he does that. He is trying to copy the master—Sherlock Holmes, you know—but it’s so corny nowadays.”
“How’s your mother?” Lady Pipford asked Rupert while she unlocked the chocolate drawer.
“Sobering up, I hope,” said the detestable Priggley. “She’s taking a cure, anyway. It was about time, really. Oh, thanks,” he added as he chose a walnut cream from the box handed to him.
“I must get back to Newminster,” said Carolus. “I’ll take this infant prodigy off your hands, Margaret.”
In the car Rupert pleaded, “Look, Sir, I haven’t heard a thing. Couldn’t we do one little interrogation before we go back? Even someone quite unimportant? I’d like to see you in action.”
“I’d like to see you in hell,” said Carolus, “but he turned in at a gateway among the trees which opened like the entrance of a cave beside them. They found themselves in front of a tall, gloomy house.
“Oh goody!” said Rupert. “The Vicarage!”
The Reverend Selwyn Fleece was a big, jocular man who seemed to lead his life in a state of noisy excitement. Boisterous, red-faced, shining, he smelt of coal-tar soap. His wife, on the other hand, had a peaked and anxious face and looked as though she were on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as well she might be after twenty years of the Vicar.
“Well, well, well!” shouted Mr. Fleece. “This is a surprise! The Deene of Newminster! Come in, my dear fellow. I’m delighted to see you. We were talking about you this evening, weren’t me, my dear?”
“Only kindly . . .” said Mrs. Fleece, as though in acute fear that the Vicar’s words might be misinterpreted.
“Of course it! Of course! Now we’re all agog. We can’t wait to hear! To what do we owe this honour?”
Carolus, having quickly introduced Rupert, tried by a curt and serious statement to calm down the Vicar’s exuberance.
“I’m investigating the death of Darryl Montaccord,” he said
The Vicar no longer smiled, but his vigour and loquacity were unimpaired.
“Sad! sad!” he shouted. “No age, really. Not the most likeable of men. Still, tragic, don’t you think? Tragic. And such a violent modus operandi to choose. It must be a great shock to our Lady of the Manor.”
“She has survived it very well.”
The Vicar could now beam again.
“She would!” he roared. “Takes something to upset her, eh, Deene? What a woman! What a woman!
“We did offer our condolences . . .” said Mrs. Fleece, giving Carolus a worried look.
“So you’re investigating, eh, Deene? Magnifying glass and deer-stalker. What a chap you are for a crime! I shall be careful before I commit my murders, with you in the district.”
Mrs. Fleece heard this with nothing less than panic.
“He wouldn’t hurt a fly, really,” she said.
“But what brings you to us, my dear chap? We’re delighted to see you, of course, but I feel you would scarcely bother with a quiet old couple like us if you hadn’t something up your sleeve. What do you want to ask us, eh? Where we were on the night of the 14th?” The Vicar bellowed with laughter.
“Where were you, as a matter of fact, Sir?” asked Rupert Priggley calmly.
This scarcely moderated the Vicar’s laugh.
“You’ve certainly been teaching the young lad here how to shoot, Deene,” he went on boisterously. “Where was I? In bed and asleep, of course. Where else would a country parson be?”
“Wasn’t that the night you were called out?” asked his wife.
Whatever the Vicar felt, he shewed no signs of irritation.
“Was it? Why, I believe it was! What a coincidence, eh? I don’t get called out once in a year to see a sick parishioner, but it happened the night before last. One of the penalties of the Cloth, you know. I had been asleep when I heard a knocking down at the front door. My wife did not hear it, did you, dear? So without waking her I pulled on a dressing-gown and went down.”
“What time would this have been?”
“It felt like the small hours!” yelled the Vicar. “What it really was I don’t know. We’re in bed by nine, and asleep soon after, so it might have been any time from ten o’clock onwards. I never looked at my watch. I found one of my parishioners at the door. His mother was dying. He didn’t think she’d last till morning. Had something she wanted to tell me before she went. I don’t approve of oracular confession, as such. Never think it’s healthy or English, whispering your sins to a priest. But if someone wants to get something off his chest, that’s different. So I slipped upstairs and dressed, pleased to see that my wife was still asleep. Weren’t you, dear?”
“Yes. I didn’t wake up till after Selwyn had gone. Then I was . . . you can imagine . . . I couldn’t guess . . .”
“Who was this parishioner?” asked Deene.
“Ah there, my dear chap, you step over the bounds of discretion. Professional secrecy. What the Romans call the sanctity of confession. I did not even reveal the name to my wife.”
“How long were you gone?”
“I suppose it must have been an hour or two. I think I was of some comfort. I like to think that whatever else I can or can’t do, I am usually to be relied on to cheer people up.”
“And to give succour and sympathy,” put in Mrs. Fleece anxiously.
“Of course. Well, well. What more can I tell you?”
“You dined with Lady Pipford about a fortnight ago, I believe.”
“Did we not! A royal summons, my dear Deene. Living down here in the country one comes to treasure such invitations, particularly from our Lady Bountiful. It was quite a festive occasion for us. Congenial company . . .
Who were your fellow guests?
“Mr. and Mrs. Gorringer. Your worthy employer and his wife.”
“You find them congenial?” Carolus could not help asking.
The Vicar beamed.
“I know what you’re thinking. Gorringer may be rather heavy going at times, but Mrs. G. is very good company. We laughed so much that evening! She gave a little imitation of her Sealyham terrier. Laugh? Dear me! We felt no presage of what was to come.”
“Who else was there?”
The Vicar was amused again.
“Who do you think? None other than our Sister Alicia . . .”
“He means Miss Quick,” said Mrs. Fleece.
“Yes, Miss Crick was there. In all the splendour of old lace. ‘A perfect woman nobly planned, To warn, to comfort and command.’ She was very much the guest though, admiring the flowers and scarcely mentioning her own garden for the first half-hour. A fine period piece.”
“She really is a little old-fashioned,” admitted Mrs. Fleece.
“There was no one else?”
“Wasn’t that enough?” roared the Vicar. “You’re never satisfied, my dear Deene. With that little collection and Lady Pipford and Darryl, I should’ve thought even you would have thought us enough.”
“It was successful?”
“It was, in spite of some small preoccupation of our hostess’s. I do not know its nature, but I can tell you something of its cause, if you are interested.”
“I’m most interested. I was hoping to hear something of events in that house before the affair of Tuesday.”
“It’s a small matter, probably, but you may as well hear. We were the first to arrive. My wife wore her old gold. ‘The Golden Fleece’, I said, as we drove up the lane. (We had a taxi driven by young Eddy Bretton.) We were shewn into the room called the smoking-room . . .”
“It’s a drawing-room, really,” said Mrs. Fleece.
“Or a lounge. We were alone there for a moment. I noticed that the afternoon post lay on a side-table, unopened, and on top of it was a letter from Jason . . .”
“How did you know that?”
“The handwriting. I know it well. It’s unmistakable.”
“Selwyn couldn’t help noticing it,” said his wife.
“Then our hostess came in. She looked quite radiant and very happy. She greeted us and made a complimentary remark on my wife’s dress and a very uncomplimentary one, though in great good-humour, of course, on my inclination to put on weight. Then she noticed her letters lying there. ‘Will you both excuse me,’ she said. ‘Just for one moment. I have been waiting for this letter.’ She opened Jason’s letter, and as she read it a remarkable change came over her. Yes, considering it was our immovable Lady Pipford, a remarkable change. She did not change colour, but I could see she was agitated. ‘Not bad news, I hope,’ I said. She looked up. She seemed to master herself. ‘Puzzling news,’ she said. Then she stood up, and as though dismissing what ever it was from her mind, busied herself with one or two details.”
The Vicar chuckled.
“One rather amused us. I remarked on it to my wife afterwards. There was a large box of expensive chocolates there. Windsor chocolates, they are called. She locked it away in a cupboard of the bureau.”
“In a drawer, surely?”
“No, no. A cupboard. She has a great liking for sweetmeats of all kinds. We’ve often noticed it. She is usually very generous with them. Presses them on her guests. We found her conduct inexplicable. Unless”—the Vicar was smiling again—“unless it was to keep them from her son-in-law. That wouldn’t surprise me. No love lost there, I fancy. She scarcely spoke to him that evening.”
“Did you notice anything else you think worth recalling?”
“No. The Gorringers arrived soon afterwards—Mrs. Gorringer in great form. Then Sister Alicia. We went into dinner, and the conversation was lively.”
There was a word like a groan from Rupert Priggley. It sounded like—but surely could not have been—the monosyllable “God!”
“Lady Pipford became our gracious hostess, presiding with great presence. Now and again during the evening I thought she was a trifle preoccupied, but that may have been my fancy. We took our several ways home soon after ten. Most enjoyable.”
“Thank you very much. You have been most helpful. I understand you both went to tea with Lady Pipford on the day of Darryl’s death. May I ask whether you had been up at the house on any other occasion since the dinner-party?”
After a moments hesitation Mr. Fleece said, “No,” and left it at that.
“Didn’t you tell me . . .” began Mrs. Fleece nervously.
“No,” repeated the Vicar more peremptorily. Then, as though in explanation, “I had to call on Nockings, but that’s not the house. He’s a great standby. Leads the bell-ringers and sings bass in the choir.”
Carolus took his leave. It was not until the car had left the drive that Rupert exploded.
“Can you imagine it?” he asked. “Mrs. Gorringer in great form. The Golden Fleece. You’d never believe there was such people until a crime’s committed and you winkle them out.”
“You’re a very unpleasant boy.”
“So my second stepmother-to-be says. Or not to be. You can never tell with Daddy. Any more this evening?”
“Certainly not. You’ve got some reading to do before tomorrow.”
“I always read history in bed. It’s a splendid soporific. Thanks for letting me come, anyway. We’ll do the rest tomorrow.”
Carolus dropped him in the main street, and after putting his car away went to his house. Mrs. Stick came into the whole as the entered, and he knew at once from her face that something had happened.
“Mr. Moore is here,” she said. “I’ve put him in your study.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Stick. Did you give him a drink?”
“I did not. I wasn’t going to have your whisky being drunk up by every Tom, Dick and Harry from the police force.”
“Then bring it in now, will you, please?”
Carolus found his friend Detective Sergeant John Moore stretched in an arm-chair.
“I suppose you’ve just come from Mincott?” was Moore’s greeting.
“Trying to make a murder of it, Carolus?”
“Just poking about at present.”
Mrs. Stick came in with a tray. Decanter, siphon and glasses gleamed under the light.
“Going to stay and have some dinner, John? I don’t know what there is . . .”
It would not be true to say that Mrs. Stick did not speak. Her lips remained tight shut, but her eyes said a great deal.
“The inquest’s tomorrow,” said Moore. “As the results of our enquiries will come out then, I thought you might as well hear.”
“Decent of you.”
“In the first place, there is nothing inconsistent with suicide in the position of the body and be done. The man could have sat up in bed with the gun beside him, put the tip of the barrel in or near his mouth, and pulled the trigger with the thumb of his right hand. In fact to all appearances that is what did happen.”
“Are you satisfied with those appearances? You don’t think they are a little staged?”
“Wait a minute. The only fingerprints on the gun are the dead man’s.”
“We have had an autopsy. I need not be technical, but the chemical substances found are consistent with the dead man having taken two of Lady Pipford’s sleeping-tablets. This is a perfectly normal dose.”
“Can your man say how long before death they were swallowed?”
“Not with any precision, but I gather not more than two hours before.”
“And not less than?”
“Oh, quite soon before death. Ten to fifteen minutes.”
“Are they powerful?”
“No. Quite mild. They might not act for an hour or two, or act at all with some people. The point is that Darryl had taken a normal quantity. He was not poisoned.”
“No. I do not suppose that he had been. But when your experts talk about the position of the gun and the body not being inconsistent with suicide, do they also admit that they are just as consistent with murder? Couldn’t Darryl have been shot?”
“He could have been, I suppose. But there’s not the slightest reason to think that he was. Listen, Carolus. We’ve sifted the thing right through. No one, repeat no one, had any motive for killing this man. The family had got him off their hands. Lady Pipford’s money had already been paid. The wife was free of him. He had no friends, but equally he had no enemies. Who would bother to murder him?”
“What about is own family?”
“There’s only a sister. She is married to a chartered accountant in Dundee, hasn’t seen Darryl for twenty years and has been in hospital with a damaged thigh for over a month. I tell you no one had any reason to kill this man. If anyone killed Darryl Montaccord, it was a homicidal maniac.”
“Ah, now you’re talking,” said Carolus.
John Moore looked up.
“You don’t take that seriously?”
“I agree that if a man is killed in deliberately, but without a motive, it is the work of a homicidal maniac.”
“But in this case?”
“I haven’t got very far with this case, John. I haven’t finished talking to the people concerned.”
“Yet you ask me to believe it’s murder?”
“I don’t ask you to believe anything. On the contrary, I am delighted that you should think it’s suicide. You give me a clear field.”
“I don’t trust you, Carolus,” said Moore. “I don’t know what you’re up to.”
“Nor do I, quite. But I think this man was murdered.”
“In that case you must be expecting more. If a homicidal maniac killed Montaccord, he will strike again.”
“They always do,” said Carolus. “Tell me, any luck with fingerprints?”
“I meant generally.”
“Did they try the bottle containing sleeping pills?”
Moore had to refer to his own notes to answer that.
“Yes. They did. There were none at all.”
“What about the catch of the scullery window?”
“May Swillow’s,” said Moore.
“What else have you found?”
“Nothing concrete. But we’re satisfied. It was suicide all right. I think you’ll come round to our view, Carolus.”
“I hope you will. I don’t want any more violent death in my district. And if you’re right, there will be.”