Dead for a Ducat
If by ‘tragedy queen’ Carolus implied a woman who would burst into the room and give evidence in ringing tones, he was mistaken. May Swillow was lanky and her movements were sinuous without being graceful. She sidled in and gazed at them with a long face, her eyes wide with an expression of almost enjoyable awe and solemnity, the expression seen on faces during the ham-and-sherry reception after a funeral.
“Oh, Mr. Deene,” she said in a low, thrilled voice. “Isn’t it Awful? Whatever could have made him do it?”
“You are Mrs. Swillow?” began John Moore gently.
Mrs. Swillow kept her solemn stare on Carolus.
“Yes, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can tell you. I’m too Upset. All over the bedclothes, too. I never thought to be working where anything like this would happen. Eight years I’ve been with Lady Pipford . . .”
“You knew the dead man well, then?”
“The dead man! It sounds so dreadful! Poor Mr. Darryl! Yes, I knew him, I suppose, though I don’t think anyone knew him very much. He kept to himself such a lot. But what can have possessed him . . .”
Mrs. Swillow’s hands were being clasped and unclasped as though she were wringing them.
“Would you tell us all you know about him?”
“Oh, I don’t know whether I could. Not today. With his body lying upstairs—or all that is left of it. I’m too Upset.”
“How did he get on with Mrs. Montaccord?”
“Miss Lanie, you mean? That was the dreadful thing! It all looked so hopeful when they married six years ago. If ever there was a beautiful wedding it was then. To think that it should end in this!”
John Moore was patient.
“It was one long quarrel,” said Mrs. Swillow in funereal tones. “One long quarrel. Morning, noon and night. Day in and day out. Breakfast, dinner and tea. . . .”
“What about?” asked Moore a little more sharply.
“The money, chiefly. Isn’t it sad, what money does? Mr. Darryl hadn’t any, you see.”
“Didn’t he earn any?”
May Swillow shook her head rather violently.
“No. Never. That was It! If only he had, this might never have happened and we shouldn’t be sitting here now with all that . . . that horrible . . . that dreadful . . . upstairs.”
“What did he do?”
“Do? Nothing that you would call doing anything. He didn’t get up till eleven, then always a sleep after lunch. I should be the last to Say Anything, but he was rather a greedy man. Well, you could see it, couldn’t you? All that unhealthy fat on him.” For the first time Carolus detected a note of bitterness in Mrs. Swillow’s voice. “He ate enough for six,” she said. “Especially anything sweet. What with him and Lady Pipford, it didn’t matter how big I made a thing there was none for the kitchen. I nearly told him once. ‘You might leave a little of this,’ I was going to say when I brought in a nice ice-pudding.”
“You were telling us what he did all day.”
“Well, that’s what he did. Eat and sleep. Sleep and eat. Like a . . . like a . . .”
“Sloth,” put in Carolus, speaking for the first time.
“But there has been a change lately,” said May Swillow. “Just these last weeks. It’s seemed as though he scarcely wanted Lady Pipford out of his sight. He was with her more than I’ve ever known him. In the house, that is. They never went out together.”
“He had no interests?”
“Money,” said Mrs. Swillow incisively. “He was always thinking about money. On to Lady Pipford for it. After Miss Lanie. Getting round Mr. Jason. Trying the bank.”
“Doing everything except earn it, in fact? Yet you say it started by being a happy marriage?”
“He was different then. People change. We thought he was ever so nice. He was coming down here to start poultry-farming. Lady Pipford was doing it all for him—giving him the ground and everything. But it never seemed to get anywhere. He talked and talked and never started. That’s what first made things go wrong, I think.”
“Did Mr. and Mrs. Montaccord share a bedroom when they were together here?”
“Not for some years, they haven’t. It did seem a shame, after it began so well like that. But Miss Lanie hasn’t been here since Christmas.”
“How long has Mr. Montaccord been sleeping in that room?”
“Oh, a year or two now. He liked it because it was quiet. Lady Pipford liked his being there because he snored so dreadfully. . . .”
“Snored?” put in Carolus.
“Oh, it was terrible! All night long. It was like some wild animal in the house. You could hardly hear yourself speak. Me and Mr. Swillow always sleep in the house when Lady Pipford’s away, so I’ve heard it. And never a window open in his room. You could hardly go in there in the morning sometimes. But I should be the last to say anything about him now that he . . . that he’s . . .”
“Dead,” suggested Carolus.
“Do you know if he was in the habit of locking his door at night?”
“Yes, he was. Mr. Swillow sometimes took his breakfast up in the morning, and he always found it locked. It took him ever so long to make him hear sometimes.”
“Yet last night the door was open and the key wasn’t in the lock.”
May Swillow gaped.
“Wasn’t it? That’s funny.”
“Did you do his room out yesterday morning?”
“I did. Poppy didn’t like going in there.”
“I don’t suppose you noticed whether the key was there then?”
“Not really, I didn’t. I should be the last to say I’d seen a thing if I hadn’t. I don’t know whether it was there or not.”
“I should like to ask Mrs. Swillow something, John.” Without waiting for permission, Carolus said: “You told us just now that Poppy didn’t like going into Darryl’s room. Why was that?”
Mrs. Swillow’s hands twisted in her lap as though she were playing mongoose and cobra with them.
“It wasn’t Nice,” she said. “He’d never let her alone. Mind you, Poppy can take care of herself, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’s slapped his face before now, I do know that. But it didn’t seem to make a difference.”
John Moore appeared to think that there had been enough of this diversion and returned sternly to his notebook.
“Now about this scullery window . . .” he began.
“I can’t understand it!” exclaimed May Swillow dolefully. “It’s one thing I can’t understand. I should be the last to say I’d done a thing if I hadn’t, but I remember shutting that window as sure as I’m sitting here.”
“What time was that?”
“Just before me and Mr. Swillow went home. Nearly nine, I should have thought. It was a blowy night, and I’d only had the window open a little to freshen the place after washing up the dinner-things, and I closed it very soon. I remember saying to Mr. Swillow, ‘I must close that window,’ I said, ‘else we shall all be blown out of our seats.’ ”
“And what did he say?” asked Carolus.
“He doesn’t say much,” explained Mrs. Swillow. “Still, there it is. I couldn’t be making a mistake. I shut it and put the catch down.”
“Lady Pipford found it open later.”
“Yes! There you are! How did it get open? That’s what I’d like to know.”
“It can only have been opened from the inside. It hadn’t been forced.”
“Whoever can have done that?” asked Mrs. Swillow.
“We only know of two people in the house after you left: Lady Pipford and Darryl Montaccord.”
“Makes you think, doesn’t it? I mean, what would she have opened it for? Or him, for that matter?”
“Can you think of any reason why Mr. Montaccord might have opened that window, Mrs. Swillow?”
“Unless it was to let someone in,” gasped Mrs. Swillow as though she was appalled at the daring of her own suggestion. “That is an easy window to get in by.”
“Well, if he had got anyone coming to see him he didn’t want Lady Pipford to know about . . .”
“Yes, but who?”
“Oh, I couldn’t say, I’m sure. I should be the last to want to make mischief.”
“Was there anyone he used to meet unknown to Lady Pipford? Any girl, for instance?”
“Not that I know of. Of course it could have been a friend coming in for a drink. He wouldn’t say anything if it had been, because Lady Pipford didn’t like a lot of her whisky drunk, and he’d have done it on the sly.”
“Why not let him in by the front door?”
“After it was bolted and chained? It would have made too much noise.”
“Had he ever done such a thing before?”
“Well, there was a time when Lady Pipford was away . . .”
“Who was it then?”
“It was a Mr. Boater. He lives just down the road. But that’s some months ago. I remember because Lady Pipford found out afterwards. It wasn’t so much the whisky she minded then, but between them they’d eaten a whole box of Turkish delight and some almond fondants she had. She never forgave him that. She’s got a sweet tooth, you see. Ever since then she’s kept everything locked up. Even the chocolate fudge.”
“It seems a great house for sweets,” said Carolus.
“Sweets? You’ve never seen anything like it. I like a sweet now and again, but I couldn’t eat them like they do. Two sticks of nougat are enough for me. Or a few squares of butterscotch. I like some fruit gums now and again, and I’m partial to sugared almonds. Mr. Bunt in the village has just got some ever nice chocs and the old-fashioned aniseed balls. It won’t be long before Lady Pipford hears about those. But since this happened she keeps everything locked.”
A new animation had come into Mrs. Swillow’s manner as she made this sugary catalogue. But she grew serious again when John Moore asked her whether she could suggest anyone else whom Darryl might have admitted by the scullery window.
“Well, it did cross my mind,” she said, “but I don’t hardly know why, that there’s always been something I didn’t understand about the way Mr. Darryl and Mr. Jason went off and talked together.”
“Mr. Jason being Lady Pipford’s son?”
“Yes. He lives in London. A very serious gentleman. Married and children. He and Mr. Darryl always seemed to be talking about something they didn’t want anyone to hear.”
“Are you suggesting, then, that Mr. Jason Pipford came down last night and was admitted by Mr. Montaccord by the scullery window?”
Mrs. Swillow was horrified.
“Me? Whoever heard of such a thing? I should be the last! Only you asked who else it might have been, and we can’t help thinking, can we? I don’t say Mr. Jason was within a hundred miles of here, only I do know he and Mr. Darryl talk very funny and private when they’re together.”
“If there had been anyone else admitted to the house for a drink by Darryl, you would have known by the used glasses this morning, wouldn’t you?” It was Carolus who asked this.
“Yes. And there weren’t any. There was the cup Lady Pipford had her Ovaltine in and nothing else.”
“Doesn’t Darryl have a nightcap?”
“Well, he doesn’t usually, but just lately he’s taken to having a rum-and-milk with sugar in it. He likes anything like that. But I don’t think he can have last night, anyway. I didn’t see his glass anywhere.”
“Would you know if you were a tumbler short?” asked Carolus.
“No. I couldn’t keep count. There’s breakages and that. Not that me and Poppy are smashers. But there’s bound to be some go in a house like this.”
“Did Darryl prepare his own rum-and-milk?”
“Must have done. I can’t see Lady Pipford doing it for him. Though how he managed I don’t know, because you have to be careful the milk doesn’t curdle, and he didn’t hardly know how to switch on an electric ring.”
“He was surely not as impractical as that? He could certainly handle a gun.”
“Well, they all could do that. They all loved a bit of shooting, and Mr. Swillow’s time was half given up to game-keeping when he ought to have been helping me. It’s not my idea, shooting at birds and that. But there you are. They all liked it: Lady Pipford, Mr. Jason, Miss Lanie, Mr. Darryl. I don’t know how many pheasants and partridges I roast in a year. With a nice peach flan to follow, or a croquante of macaroons, or meringues with banana cream . . .”
“Yes, yes,” said Moore. “So they could all use guns. Was the gun-room kept locked?”
“No. Never, that I knew of. If only it had been! There wouldn’t have been this Death, would there? And such an awful way of doing it. I never thought I’d live to see Mr. Darryl no more than . . . than a . . .”
“Corpse,” said Carolus.
“There’s just one more matter on which I must ask you a few questions, Mrs. Swillow,” said Moore firmly.
“I don’t know whether I can answer them. I’m not really in a Fit State. It’s a dreadful thing to happen, and I can’t get over it. You should see the pillows! But I expect you have . . .”
“Who has visited the house lately?”
Mrs. Swillow’s hands untied themselves and were knotted again.
“I must try to think,” she said. “It’s not easy to remember, when so much has happened. Mr. and Mrs. Fleece came to tea yesterday—the Vicar and his wife, that is. I made a lovely iced cake and got some chocolate biscuits from Mr. Bunt, and they must have enjoyed them, because there wasn’t any left. Not enough to be worth keeping, as I told Lady Pipford when she asked about them.”
John Moore made a note.
“Anyone else?” he asked.
“Miss Crick popped in after tea, as she often did.”
“Who is Miss Crick?”
“She’s the lady who lives at Rosemary Cottage. Very fond of gardening, she is. She only came to bring Lady Pipford one of her lavender bags. Always something like that. If it isn’t a bunch of radishes, it’s a lot of Everlastings. Mr. Nockings, our gardener, gets ever so cross, and little wonder . . .”
“No one else came?”
“Not that I can remember. We don’t often have people. Mr. Deene sometimes. But Lady Pipford doesn’t encourage odd calls. She gives a dinner-party sometimes.”
“When was the last?”
“It must have been a fortnight ago. Mr. and Mrs. Gorringer, that was. The Fleeces. Miss Crick. I made ever such a lovely Bombe . . .”
“You can’t think of any other recent visitors?”
“There was Mr. Geary,” reflected Mrs. Swillow. “That’s Lady Pipford’s lawyer. She sent for him about a month back.”
Here it comes, thought Carolus. The old, old story. The last will and testament.
“How long did he stay?”
“Not more than ten minutes. He’s a very busy man. He was up in Lady Pipford’s little sitting-room with her. Not more than a quarter of an hour, anyway.”
“And he hasn’t been here since?”
“Not that I know of. Oh dear! I’ve never thought of it before, but they say lawyers bring Death to a house, don’t they? If she hadn’t asked him . . .”
“That, I think, is all I want to know at present, Mrs. Swillow. Unless you can think of anything that would help us.”
“I can’t. It’s a Mystery, isn’t it? You’d have supposed he thought too much of his own comfort. I don’t think I shall ever get over it. To think that yesterday he was alive and now . . . now he’s . . .”
“Dead,” Carolus said obligingly for the second time.
“I suppose he’ll have to have a funeral, like everyone else? Awful to think of, isn’t it? When he could be alive and well. He was going away today. Down to Brighton. He said he was going to work. Help in a small hotel, I understand, though what help he’d be . . .”
“Thank you, Mrs. Swillow.”
Mrs. Swillow rose and veered towards the door.
“I don’t like going upstairs,” she announced with her hand on the handle. “Not with that . . . with Mr. Darryl there like that. When is it going to be taken away?”
“Soon. Then you’ll be able to clear up.”
“Clear up? That? I couldn’t! It would be as much as I dared to go near it. The bed! With all that . . . all that . . .”
“Blood,” put in Carolus.
Mrs. Swillow made a sound like a choke and went out without opening the door more than a foot.
“Who is next?” asked Carolus at once.
“I’ll just see the girl,” said Moore. “Then I think I’ll leave it till tomorrow morning. I’ve got a lot of stuff here which I want to go over, and the reports will be coming in.”
“You won’t even wait to see the daughter? She’s expected any time now, I gather.”
“I don’t think so. She’ll keep.”
“Till I’m in school, I suppose?”
“I can’t undertake to have you round all the time,” he said. “And anyway, I suppose you’ll stay now and meet her?”
“Yes. I’ve been asked to tea.”
“I hope you enjoy your chocolate éclairs and cream.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus. “And now for Poppy Munn.”