Dead for a Ducat
Lady Pipford’s antagonism to the police was well known. Even Detective Sergeant John Moore was aware of it, and, being a sensible man, he was prepared to make allowances. It did not seem to him or to Carolus strange that the old lady had refused to see him that night, but on the following morning it was essential, of course, that he should interview her. He reached Mincott House at ten o’clock.
The door was opened by Poppy Munn, a girl from the village who worked with Mrs. Swillow in the house but would have resented being called a maid, a servant or a housemaid. She favoured the term ‘assistant housekeeper’.
“Oh, hullo,” she said to John Moore. “I thought you’d be along. Nasty mess, isn’t it?”
In a rather smart dress from a Newminster shop, with a bold hair-do and a good make-up, she looked a very self-possessed young woman, quite undisturbed by the fact that in one of the bedrooms was still a very ugly corpse.
“Is Lady Pipford in?” asked John Moore.
“Yes. But I don’t suppose she’ll see you. She doesn’t like policemen.
“Just tell her I’ve called, will you?”
“Oky-doke. You better come in a sit down, I suppose. She’ll probably scream blue murder at me for admitting a copper, but still. Booked any good Reds lately?”
“Just tell Lady Pipford . . .”
“Okay. Okay. Don’t get impatient. Darryl’s not going to get up and walk away. You can mess about with blood and fingerprints for a week if you want. You wait in here, and I’ll go and tell Lady Pip.”
John Moore found himself in the room in which he had been with Carolus Deene last night, a pleasant, intimate room with old furniture which looked as though it had stood in the same place for a century and been polished every morning. There were flowers and oddments: boxes, Bow china, silver—things collected over the years, but little that was foreign. Lady Pipford was not a bringer home of tiger-skins and beadwork, strange weapons or primitive carving.
The room had been ‘done’ that morning, Moore observed, but before he and Carolus had left last night he had made all the observation he required. The doctor had also made a preliminary examination in the small hours of the morning. Moore was a conscientious man, and had left nothing undone which might not be possible today.
“Told you so,” she said. “I ought never to have let you into the house.”
Moore remained cool.
“Now that I am in,” he said, “you can tell the old lady that I don’t move from here until she answers some questions.”
“That’s not the way to do it,” she said. The last thing you want to rouse is her obstinacy. Besides, she will see you, only not now. It’s got to be this afternoon, when Carolus Deene is here. He’s a schoolmaster type—rather good at your racket, I believe.”
“I know Mr. Deene,” said Moore shortly.
He was wondering what he should do. He could cut up rough and start talking about obstructing the police in the execution of their duty. He could insist on seeing the old vixen. Or he could wait till Carolus came. It was a school half-holiday today, and Carolus had said he would be here after lunch. Perhaps that would be best.
“All right,” he said to Poppy. “I’ll come back at half-past two. I must see her then, though.”
“She’ll see you then. There’s one thing about her—she does stick to her word. But what a nuisance it all is. Darryl was going away today, anyhow. I can’t think what he wanted to make all that mess for.”
Moore looked narrowly at this confident young woman.
“Where were you last night?” he asked.
“Now where would you suppose? At the village dance, of course. The band’s appalling, but it’s close and easy.”
“With whom? Well, mostly with a character called Eddy Bretton, who’s by way of being engaged to me. He saw me home, anyway. Anything else you want to know?”
“There will be this afternoon. I’ll leave other questions till then.”
“That’ll be nice and cosy. Cheerio.”
“You might say I shall want to see the rest of the household, will you?” He glanced at his notebook. “Mr. and Mrs. Swillow, and Nockings the gardener. I suppose Lady Pipford has sent for her son and daughter?”
“Doubt it. She doesn’t seem to take the thing very seriously. Darryl was a drip, anyway. See you this afternoon.”
That was the odd thing, reflected John Moore as he drove away—no one seemed to take the thing very seriously; indeed, the horrible piece of violence, suicide or whatever it was, seemed to be considered as a matter of course. Carolus had told him that old Lady Pipford was calm, almost chatty after it happened. Surely someone must be distressed about it?
Carolus Deene, meanwhile, was in school. He had the faculty of closing his mind to other matters, however interesting, while he was teaching, and that morning faced the Senior Fifth, reputed to be the most difficult class at the Queen’s School, Newminster. This time, at least, it would be impossible for them to know about his activities last night and so divert him from Pitt the Elder and the Stamp Act, with which he was immediately concerned. He knew the way of this particular class. It would appoint a studious and bespectacled boy named Simmons to ask him leading questions about any crime he was investigating and trust to the enthusiasm of Carolus for the rest. Only too often he was led away from history to the more attractive avenues of contemporary murders.
Today, however, it was clear that the class knew nothing. Even Rupert Priggley, a most unpleasantly sophisticated boy who led them, listened to Carolus unfolding the vicissitudes of Pitt’s career for at least half an hour before he seized a pause in the narrative to give an ostentatious yawn.
“Isn’t it time we had another murder, don’t you think?”
“What on earth do you mean, Priggley? We’re talking about William Pitt.”
“The Elder. Yes, I know. But I thought it was time we had something less paralysingly dull to listen to. No corpses around?”
“There will be,” said Carolus darkly.
“That’s good. I mean, I don’t mind a spasm of history, but you might salt it with a bit of crime.”
“I’ll remember that,” said Carolus.
“You wouldn’t hold anything back from us, would you, Sir? If you were on to anything good?”
“When Rockingham was dismissed in July 1766 . . .” resumed Carolus.
“Have it your own way, Sir,” conceded Priggley. “But if we find you are holding out on us, don’t expect a decently attentive class again this term. There will be rags and riots which cannot fail to reach the headmaster’s ears.”
Mr. Gorringer’s ears were famous, large and red, with dark hairs like antennae in them. Things were always reaching them, in the headmaster’s phrase, but the school did not think of them as passive and patient recipients of unpleasant matters, but rather as feelers, proboscine and quick to pick up news and gossip from any quarter.
“Thank you, Priggley. You won’t interrupt again, please.”
He saw the odious boy look at him in a pained and pitying way, as though in silent reproof of this old-fashioned pedagogic phraseology, but he was not again deflected from his subject.
Only as he went home to lunch in his own house did he allow himself to forget the school and remember the events of last night. That fearful corpse, the strange calm of Lady Pipford, the still house which did not seem empty, the open scullery window, the disappearance of the milky glass and the flapping curtains over the french windows. There were a number of puzzling things about it all.
He had waited last night till the police finished their measurements and fingerprinting, their medical examination and photography, and had remained in the house until the servants arrived in the morning. It was nearly eight o’clock before he returned to bed.
He wondered now what would be the comment of Mrs. Stick, his excellent but severe housekeeper, who disapproved of his activities as an investigator. At breakfast that morning she had said nothing; but, then, it was her habit to wait for an appropriate moment to Speak. She was a woman to whom Speaking meant something. ‘I had to Speak,’ she would point out. ‘It would never do to Speak.’ ‘If anyone was to Speak about it . . .’ Such phrases graced her conversation. Carolus wondered, not without amusement, whether she intended to Speak today.
She did not do so until she brought the coffee, that delectable small cup of black which only she could make. Then she faced him.
“It was eight o’clock before you got in this morning, Sir.”
“Was it, Mrs. Stick?”
“It was. I told Stick to see the time. ‘It’s just past eight,’ he said. How you think you can do that when you have to be in school by nine, and keep your health, I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t leave much time for sleep, does it?”
“You’ll kill yourself like that. That’s what you’ll do. Never mind how much care me and Stick take care of you.”
Carolus smiled. But Mrs. Stick had not finished. She was watching him narrowly.
“I’ve heard that Something Happened out at Mincott last night,” she said. “Mr. Carter the milkman told me. Someone shot himself.”
Carolus, it seemed, was not interested.
“You hadn’t heard about it then, Sir? Well, that’s Something. I said to Stick this morning, ‘If he’s going to start larking about with any of this crime again we must Go,” I said. Not that we wish to. But if there’s one thing me and Stick can’t bear, it’s being in a place where there’s murder and that. Still, since you know nothing about it . . .”
“What makes you say murder, Mrs. Stick? You called it suicide just now.”
“Never you mind. You’d better have a nap this afternoon, Sir, to Make Up for It.”
Carolus stood up and started walking to the front door.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mrs. Stick. I’ve got to go out.” He had the door open now. “To Mincott,” he added, before slamming it behind him.
This took him to the house earlier than he had intended, and he found that John Moore had not yet come. He decided to telephone and confirm that they would meet there. He sat down at the little table in the hall and was waiting for his number when he happened to notice something which made him replace the receiver until he had examined it.
On the window-ledge beside him stood an old hand-beaten copper bowl in which was a flower-pot. Bulbs were beginning to shoot in this, but it was not at them he stared. Between the flower-pot and the bowl there pointed upwards rather grotesquely, the stiff finger of a glove.
Carolus looked closely and found that a pair of woman’s gloves, large and loose but of good leather, had been pressed down in the space. It would have made an excellent place of concealment if the person who had used it had not been in such a hurry that a finger was left out to reveal it.
Carolus put the gloves in his pocket and went out to find Margaret Pipford. The old lady came in from the garden just then, flushed and wind-blown, having taken her dogs for exercise. As always, she sparkled with vitality and zest.
“Oh, Carolus, it’s so good out. Sunlight and breeze. I have enjoyed my walk.”
She looked extremely unlike a woman whose son-in-law had just suffered a violent and bloody death.
“Are these your gloves, Margaret?” asked Carolus.
“Yes. They’re the ones I use for doing the flowers. Where did you find them?”
She sounded casual.
“I found them badly concealed in a plant-pot near the telephone.”
“What an extraordinary thing! I haven’t seen them for some time. I wonder how they got there, of all places.”
“There are a lot of things which make me wonder. For instance, did you return to the smoking-room last night while I was admitting the police.”
“Certainly not. I went straight to bed. You’re becoming a dreadful bore, dear Carolus, with all these questions. You’re behaving exactly like a detective in a book after there has been a murder.”
“As a matter of fact, Margaret, I shouldn’t be surprised if there had been a murder.”
“Really, Carolus. You mean Darryl? But who would bother?”
“I don’t know yet. But why was the scullery window open last night? It had not been forced, you know.
“You must ask the Swillows about that.”
“And again why was that milky glass from which you say Darryl had his rum-and-milk taken from the smoking-room while I was out of it for a moment last night?”
“Was it? How odd! There must be a poltergeist in the house.”
“I don’t think so. There was nothing supernatural about it. Someone just did not want the contents of that glass examined.”
“So Darryl was poisoned as well as having the top of his head shot off?”
“Not necessarily. You say you gave him sleeping-pills not long before the shot?”
“I did not give them to him. I told him where they were.”
“Have you examined the box?”
“Yes. I should say he took no more than a couple. Can’t tell, of course. What else makes you wonder, my dear Carolus?”
“The fact that there was no key in Darryl’s door.”
“Now, that is an extraordinary thing, because he had rather a passion for locking himself in. I can’t explain that at all.”
“Then again, Margaret, I can’t see why Darryl should shoot himself. Was he in money trouble?”
“Oh yes. Always. I refused him money about once a month. And of course Lanie had more or less left him. But I agree these don’t look like motives for Darryl. He was used to money trouble. He had sponged on me and Lanie for years. And on my son Jason. You scarcely know him, do you? Darryl has had several goes at him. But I see no good reason for him to kill himself.”
“Have you sent for your son and daughter?”
“I ’phoned Elaine this morning. She’ll be down at teatime. But I haven’t bothered Jason. Do you think I ought to?”
“I should have thought you’d need him at a time like this.”
Carolus deliberately used the cliché and watched its effect on Margaret Pipford.
“Need him? What on earth do you mean? I’ve never needed anyone in my life.”
“That, my dear Margaret, may be very brave, but is certainly a very foolhardy thing to say. However, you know best.”
“I suppose I shall have to see this wretched policeman.”
“You certainly will. But you’re lucky. My friend John Moore has got the case. He’s quite intelligent and not a bad fellow.”
Lady Pipford looked as though she found this claim for a policeman too silly to answer.
“I hope he doesn’t start asking me irrelevant questions, about glasses and gloves and things.”
Carolus looked at her steadily.
“He knows nothing about those,” he said.
“As long as he sticks to the point and doesn’t waste too much time,” said Lady Pipford.
John Moore was shewn in by Poppy, and after icy greetings had been exchanged between him and Lady Pipford he proceeded at once to his questions. These were businesslike and pertinent and were answered with quiet economy. They related chiefly to the times of the various events of last night, and the old lady seemed remarkably precise about them. Moore went on to Darryl’s character, history, relation to the family, and money troubles, on all of which he received short but usually adequate answers. He took careful notes about the sleeping-pills and the missing key of Darryl’s door. He learnt that the whole family, including Darryl, did a good deal of shooting and checked over with Lady Pipford the various guns which he had seen last night in the gunroom. The one which had killed Darryl, it appeared, had been given to him by Lady Pipford some years ago. Moore pressed a little on the subject of the scullery window, but heard nothing new on this. Only when he left the factual and tried to penetrate the old lady’s defences by asking her opinion did he come up against a blank wall.
“I have no opinion,” said Lady Pipford.
“You think Mr. Montaccord was the sort of man who might suddenly resolve to commit suicide?”
“I have no opinion,” repeated Lady Pipford.
“But surely . . .”
“Are there any further details about which you want to ask me questions?”
John Moore closed his notebook.
“No,” he said, “but I shall have to interview your staff and any others who might have helpful information.”
“And in view of this matter of the sleeping-pills, an autopsy may be ordered.”
“I am quite indifferent as to what you do with Darryl’s body, though I want it out of the house as soon as possible.”
“That will be arranged.”
Lady Pipford left the two men together. Carolus smiled broadly at the other’s predicament and Moore responded rather feebly.
“Old tartar, isn’t she?” he asked. “She had all her answers pat, too. Thinks she’s capable of killing a man?”
“Quite capable. I’ve known Margaret Pipford since I was a boy, and I think she’s capable of killing almost anyone. Particularly a policeman.”
John Moore grinned.
“There are one or two unaccountable things here, Carolus,” he remarked.
“There always are, aren’t there? Even in the most open-and-shut cases? What are you thinking about particularly?”
“The scullery window,”
“Yes. I’ve thought of that. Of course it could be a coincidence. Or not even a coincidence. It may often be left open. These things happen, and only seem to have significance when something like this occurs.”
“I know. Perhaps I’d better wait till we get full reports from the doctors and ballistics and fingerprint boys.”
“You’ll let me see those, John?”
“Not likely. No business of yours.” He relented a little. “But you’ll hear the gist of them at the inquest.”
“Thanks. You’re very matey. Don’t expect any of my information, then. On the other hand, there can’t possibly be any harm in my staying here while you talk to the staff, can there?”
John Moore hesitated.
“You know perfectly well it’s against orders. But I suppose I’m not bound to throw you out of the room if you want to stay. For heaven’s sake keep quiet, though, and leave the questions to me. I’m going to have Mrs. Swillow in first.”
“Call Mrs. Swillow,” said Carolus affably, settling into an arm-chair on the far side of the room. “She’s a bit of a tragedy queen, but you may get something from her.”