Dead for a Ducat
Muggeridge, the porter at the Queen’s School, Newminster, was in his lodge next day when the electric bell over his head sounded. This meant that the headmaster was summoning him to his study.
Muggeridge was a heavy man who had never taken kindly to Mr. Gorringer’s insistence on a uniform consisting of a gold-braided silk hat and blue frock-coat. Moreover, he disliked being disturbed during his dinner hour. He put down his pipe reluctantly and slowly rose to his feet. It was some minutes before he stood before Mr. Gorringer.
The headmaster did not look up from his desk.
“As soon as Mr. Deene returns, kindly tell him that I wish to see him,” he said.
“He won’t be back before school,” said Muggeridge.
“Just carry out my instructions, please,” said Mr. Gorringer, his great ears reddening with displeasure.
“I’m only telling you,” said Muggeridge.
The headmaster looked up for the first time.
“How is it that you are not wearing your full uniform?” he asked in a shocked voice.
“What’s this, then?” said Muggeridge, indicating his frock-coat.
“I was referring to the hat,” said Mr. Gorringer.
“Too windy. Do you want all the boys laughing their heads off every time it goes for a Burton?”
“That will do, Muggeridge,” said Mr. Gorringer loftily. “You may go and attend to your duties now.”
“He became once more immersed in his papers as Muggeridge aggrievedly withdrew. Carolus found him like that.
“Sit down, Deene,” he said, still without looking up.
A big act, Carolus thought with some amusement, and gauged the gravity of the occasion. Mr. Gorringer had used neither the friendly ‘Ah Deene’ nor the gloomily formal ‘Mr. Deene’ kept for the most solemn of addresses. He had evidently prepared for this meeting, though, as his behaviour revealed.
“Now, Deene, he said at last, laying aside all other business with an air of great deliberation. “I wanted a word with you about this unfortunate business at Lady Pipford’s home. She spoke to me on the telephone this morning. She tells me that while she has the highest regard for you, as she had for your late father, and while she appreciates the trouble you you have taken in trying to elucidate matters connected with the death of her son-in-law, she now prefers to depend on the police.”
“What on earth’s the matter with her?” asked Carolus chattily.
Mr. Gorringer very slightly raised his hand.
“I make no secret of the fact that her resolve comes as a matter of some relief to me. As you are well aware, I view your participation in these things with apprehension for the good name of the school. While it was the death of Lady Pipford’s son-in-law, there seemed no great harm in it, but now that it has become a backstairs affair, an intrigue involving domestic servants, I feel that you are far better out of it. I therefore applaud Lady Pipford’s decision.”
“It won’t make the slightest difference, of course. But I can’t understand Margaret publicly saying that she doesn’t want this cleared up.”
“Make no mistake about it, Deene; that is not what Lady Pipford says. She is as anxious as anyone that the thing shall be investigated with the utmost urgency and thoroughness, but she has very properly decided that this shall be done by the proper authorities. She feels that amateur investigation would be disrespectful to the memory of the dead. She has asked me to indicate this to you.”
“I shall have to talk seriously to Margaret,” said Carolus. “She’ll be getting herself suspected if she goes on like this.”
The headmaster produced an appearance and spoke in a voice which suggested that he was outraged.
“Suspected?” he repeated. “And of what, may I make so bold as to ask, could Lady Pipford be suspected?”
“Murder,” said Carolus, lighting a cigarette.
“I perceive that you do not feel the comic to be out of place in this connection, Deene.”
“I don’t think it’s very comic.”
“I intended to convey that your suggestion about one of our Board of Governors could only be an ill-timed joke, in the poorest of taste. But it makes no matter. I have told you Lady Pipford’s wishes, which you will naturally respect.”
“If she thinks for a moment that I shall abandon the case, she’s crazy. It’s just beginning to be interesting.”
Mr. Gorringer shook his head sadly.
“I find you very headstrong in these matters, Deene,” he said. “Surely the combined wishes of Lady Pipford and your headmaster have some influence with you?”
“Yes. But not enough. I find nothing in me is quite as strong as my curiosity,” returned Carolus. “I want to know ‘who done it’.”
There was a mighty rumbling as Mr. Gorringer cleared his throat.
“And don’t you?” he asked, with well-concealed eagerness. “Have you no idea who is the guilty party?”
“Not that you would call an idea, I’m afraid. Who do you think it was?”
“I, Deene? Really, your question verges on the disrespectful. It is not for me as headmaster of this ancient school to indulge in divination of that sort. I had thought perhaps the gardener,” he admitted rather archly, “or possibly the woman’s husband, or conceivably the other servant. The crime seems to me to have little or no éclat. However, I have more serious matters with which to concern myself.”
“I’ll tell you as soon as I know,” promised Carolus.
“So you intend to continue. Then let it be remembered that I have expressed the strongest disapproval of your actions. I trust no inkling has reached the boys?”
“Now, headmaster, you’re being naif. Of course they knew within an hour of the first crime. Don’t ask me how. The school grapevine, I suppose.”
“That is most unfortunate,” said the headmaster. “I do not wish their heads filled with a lot of scullery intriguing. Murder is bad enough, without these sordid trappings. You will please say nothing to increase the curiosity.”
Carolus left Mr. Gorringer again busy with the papers before him, his head bent forward and his great ears shining.
He had decided to do nothing till he heard the result of the post-mortem, on which, it seemed to him, so much depended. But this came sooner than he thought—on the Tuesday evening, in fact. May Swillow had died from a dose of cyanide of potassium which had been in a chocolate she ate. Carolus questioned John Moore closely about this, but the report was clear and definite on the point.
Then the chocolates in a paper bag in her pocket had been examined and weighed. It appeared that no more than two had been eaten. The remainder had no trace of anything poisonous in them.
With this information Carolus went on Wednesday afternoon to Mincott and called at a cottage in the village distinguished by a board—‘James Munn, Building Contractor’. His ring was answered by large, rather handsome woman who, he rightly supposed, was Poppy’s mother and, as he remembered, President of the Women’s Institute. She told him breezily that Poppy was in and invited him to ‘come through’. He found himself in a small sitting-room with a large, clear fire burning in the grate. Poppy was deep in an arm-chair reading an article by Mr. Beverly Nichols in Woman’s Own. A cigarette was in her mouth, and she did not take it out as she greeted him. On the other hand, she seemed ready enough to answer his questions.
These related chiefly to the sweet-eating at Mincott House.
“Thank goodness I rarely touch that sort of thing,” said Poppy. Otherwise I probably shouldn’t be here now.”
“How is that?”
“Because I would have easten one of May Swillow’s chocolates. She offered me the bag just before tea. She’d been up for a lie-down the afternoon—a thing she liked whenever she could. When she came down, this bag was on the kitchen table. ‘There!’ she said when she saw it, ‘and I asked Mr. Nockings to get me coconut squares. Still, these are nice. Have one?’ and she held out the bag. I said, ‘No, thanks’. I was just going to have tea. I suppose it saved my life.”
“Who had been in the kitchen that afternoon?”
“Well, ectually I can’t really say. I was only there part of the time. Nockings must have put the chocolates there, and Swillow may have been in and out—or Lady Pip, for that matter. But the back door was not locked, so anyone could have come in.”
“I see. What other chocolates were there in the house?”
“Now you’re asking me something. I’ve told you they were all sucking and chewing and crunching all day long. Lady Pp was as bad as any of them. She had a box of chocolates locked up in the smoking-room; I do know that. I saw them one day in the cupboard of the bureau when she unlocked it for something else.”
“Did you notice what kind they were?”
“Yes. Windsor. They’re very expensive, I believe. They’re unmistakable, because the box is silver and has a bright red ribbon round it.”
“You don’t know if it was still there yesterday?”
“No. I don’t. But I should imagine so, because she had some others in her room.”
“No. Another kind.”
“There were no more boxes of Windsor?”
“No. But it’s a funny thing. When I was clearing out Darryl’s room after his death I found a brand-new box of Windsor chocolates locked up in one of his suitcases. Darryl was as bad of the rest of them, tucking in and champing and chewing, but I shouldn’t have supposed he would spend that money on himself. He was very close. Anyway, there they were.”
“What did you do with them?”
“Gave them to May Swillow.”
“Last Thursday. But you needn’t worry. She finished the lot that day and the next. With perhaps a little help from Swillow and Nockings and his wife. The lot. And threw the box away.”
“I see. That’s all very useful. You say Nockings brought these chocolate for her. I thought that not long ago they were not on speaking terms.”
“They weren’t. But there’d been a big making-up. Nockings felt it was Right, I suppose. He came to May Swillow for it. I don’t suppose Swillow knew or cared whether they were all at daggers drawn or not. Nockings gave forth for a time on one’s duty to one’s neighbour and offered the olive branch, which May Swillow accepted. So all was peace again.”
“You decided not to go on working there?”
“Oh, definitely. Well, wouldn’t you? The house had become much too arsenic and old lace for my comfort. I should have wondered about every mouthful I swallowed. Besides, there were only four of us left, so the chances were only three to one against being the Next. Or two to one, if the murderer was one of us.”
“I see your point. But Miss Crick doesn’t seem to mind.”
“I should think she’s in heaven, making elderberry and strychnine cordial or something.”
“Isn’t that rather unkind?”
“Oh, she’s all right, I suppose, but you do get sick of her talking about a garden and watching calls her still-room.”
“She has certainly stepped in to look after Lady Pipford.”
“She hasn’t got so much to lose as I have.”
Carolus left her with this interesting reflection and made his way to Mr. Bunt’s general shop. He already knew the proprietor, a little weasel-faced man with a grievance against life which he seemed unable to identify, still less to define, but which left him in face and manner permanently disgruntled.
“I’ve had ’em here this morning”, he announced to Carolus. “Two of ’em. Detectives, supposed to be. Asking me questions till I didn’t know where I was.”
“You don’t want to answer any more, then?”
Mr. Bunt became a martyr.
“Seeing it’s gone So Far,” he said, “you may as well ask and have done with it. I suppose I shan’t get any peace if you don’t. Not that there’s much I can tell you, anyway.”
“You can tell me what sweets you sold to anyone at Mincott House.”
“No, I can’t. It would take too long. I don’t suppose I should remember the half of it, anyway.”
“What about Lady Pipford herself?”
“Caramels,” said Mr. Bunt disgustedly. “Caramels, sugared almonds, one kind of Turkish delight which I get specially for her, candy kisses and chocolate pralines. Not chocolates—she gets those Elsewhere. She had a pound of marshmallows last Saturday morning.”
“Anything with nuts in it—coconut too. She liked fruit gums and a bit of butterscotch, but it was nuts she mostly went for. Anybody would’ve thought she was a monkey. If she didn’t come in herself every day, she’d send someone. That’s what happened on Saturday. Mr. Nockings the gardener came in after his dinner for a quarter of chocolate squares. But then been a run on them, and I hadn’t one left. Well, I can’t keep big quantities of things here, can I? It would never do.”
“So he says what would she like instead, and I gave him a quarter of the cheap chocolate, which worked out at the Same.”
“Do you happen to remember weighing them, Mr. Bunt?”
“Certainly I do. They were on the very line. I had to take out a small one and put in a big one to bring them up to it, but when he took them away that was a quarter of a pound precisely.”
“Do you ever sell Windsor chocolates?”
“No, I don’t. They are a quality line. If anyone were to want them I could get them for them, but I wouldn’t have them in stock. No Call for anything like that here.”
“Have you ever had an order for them?”
“No. If anybody wanted anything like that, they’d go into Newminster for it.”
“Who would stock them there?”
“There’s one or two. Mossby Joneses for one. The shop they call the Tuckbox. Any of the more expensive places.”
“Only one more question, Mr. Bunt. Did the late Darryl Montaccord buy sweets from you?”
“Now’n again he did. But I think he mostly went in for eating the rest of theirs up there. He hadn’t been in here for a month before he died, anyway. He went mostly for the cheaper lines: liquorice all-sorts, bull’s eyes, toffees, popcorn and fruit drops.”
“Thank you,” gasped Carolus, feeling a little overcome by this saccharine compendium. “You’ve been most helpful.”
Mr. Bunt looked as though he resented this.
“Well, you’d only Keep On if I didn’t. I’ll tell you who does like sweets. The Vicar’n his wife. Anything like fondants, peppermint creams, fruit jellies, marzipan bars and pineapple crystals . . .”
Mr. Bunt seemed to be enjoying the discomfiture of Carolus.
“Turns you up, doesn’t it?” he said suddenly.
“Almost,” returned Carolus and fled.
Now he must go up to Mincott House, and he did not like to. Carolus never used the word ‘duty’ if he could help it, but he knew now that he had very real duty and must not be deflected from it.
He had, he believed, almost as many of the facts about the two deaths as he would ever have, and they had begun to fall into place. It was essential, he believed, to persuade Lady Pipford to close her house immediately. It was essential that she should tell him more about certain things. It was essential that Miss Crick should return to Rosemary Cottage. If he could not encompass all this without revealing his suspicions, he would be failing badly, and perhaps dangerously.
But Mincott House was dark, and his ringing and knocking produced no reaction. He started to walk round to the back, but just then Nockings appeared rather abruptly in the November mist, as though he had been standing quite still waiting there. Carolus wondered whether this were so, or whether Nockings had crossed the lawn.
“Good evening, Mr. Deene. Her ladyship and Miss Crick are out. They’ll be in later, if you want to see them.”
“Do you know what time?”
“Yes. They’re meeting the seven ten at Newminster Station and coming straight back.”
“Oh. Someone arriving?”
I suppose that since you are a personal friend of her ladyship’s you may be informed, Mr. Deene; but, as you know, I am not a man to natter and chatter about the concerns of my employers. They are going to meet Mr. Jason Pipford.
“Oh yes. I remember. He has been sent for.”
“No doubt a man is necessary at a time like this, though how they’re going to Manage, I don’t know. This Miss Crick can’t do it. I don’t like to mumble and grumble about anyone, but she is a Trial. She’s on about making a herb-garden now. I’ve always grown a bit of sage and mint and thyme and that, and I don’t know what more anyone could want. But she says we must have hyssop and bergamot and alecost and chervil and I don’t know how many more. It’s not Right, you know, and her ladyship seems to listen to her more than she does to me.”
“If you see any of them this evening, will you say that I’m coming out after dinner?”
“I will, Mr. Deene.”
As the approached the Bull in Mincott village he saw John Moore’s car standing outside. He went in, and the two found seats removed from the other customers. Moore was in some considerable anxiety about the case.
“Have you been able to persuade her to go away?” he asked.
“Not yet. I’m seeing her again tonight.”
For God’s sake try, Carolus. We think we shall know the murderer in a few days, and we’re watching certain suspects almost day and night, but in the meantime that house ought to be closed.”
“I entirely agree with you.”
“At any moment this brute may strike again, and I shall be responsible for the loss of another life.”
“I’ll do what I can,” promised Carol.