At Death’s Door
The Vicar of all Saints sat in his study facing Carolus and put the tips of his fingers together. Carolus could see the bristles on the backs of his hands and wrists and the obscene tufts of black hair which sprouted from his ears and nostrils.
“So you’re a master at Queen’s School and you’re interested in crime,” he said in his stentorian voice. “It seems, if I may say so, a rather poor pair of reasons for coming to see me. I’m a busy night man, Mr. Deene. I have a large parish. I cannot really see why I should be expected to provide you with entertainment.”
“Certainly not,” said Carolus, who felt great sympathy with Mr. Colbeck’s point of point of view. “I’m awfully sorry to take your time. It really isn’t for entertainment’s sake. Two people have been most brutally murdered.”
“But surely that is an affair for the police? It seemed that he wanted the question to be heard at the bottom of the garden.
“Yes. It is also an affair for any decent citizen who happens to come on information connected with it. I’m sorry, Mr. Colbeck. What I’m going to tell you will cause you great pain. If you are an innocent man, as I must suppose you are, I am behaving outrageously in speaking to you of it. But murder is outrageous.
Mr. Colbeck was staring at Carolus now with red-rimmed, fiery eyes. The thought crossed Carolus’s mind that the Vicar had not slept for nights.
“What do you wish to say to me?”
Carolus felt that the kindest thing would be to bring it out bluntly.
“Mr. Colbeck, I was told of someone who knew the late Emily Purvice. I was collecting all the information I could about the murdered woman and I went to see this person. She was a Prison Officer.”
“Oh dear!” cried the Vicar.
Carolus sat quite still thinking what a detestable task this was, morning to be back with the cleaner crimes of mediæval courts.
“Don’t be too upset about it, Mr. Colbeck. You must remember that it was already known that you had visited Mrs. Purvice on a number of occasions and that on the eve of the murder you had accumulated a large sum of money without going to your bank. It was presumed that you were being blackmailed. All that is changed by my visit to Prison Officer Fitchley is that we know now on the strength of what you were being blackmailed.”
“Yes, yes. I see that,” said the Vicar. “But that it should be known in Newminster that my poor wife has this terrible witness and is suffering for it!” From the strength of his tones it would have seemed that he was anxious for it to be known not only in Newminster but in neighbouring parishes.
“It is not known. I know and I have, of course, told Detective Sergeant Moore and his assistant who are working on the case. But in such matters the police are discreet, Mr. Colbeck. I assure you it will not be known in the town. Unless, of course . . .”
“You mean, unless I am guilty of murder, Mr. Deene? You mean, that I am likely to escape unpleasant publicity in connection with my poor wife unless you or the police think you have reason to suspect me of this terrible crime? It is small consolation, but as consolation I suppose I must accept it.”
“I think that’s sensible of you.”
“Fortunately, I am not guilty of murder. For all I know you may suppose that I was driven to it. I will go farther and say that if ever a man could be said to have cause to take life I believe I am that man. But I did not do it.
“I have thought over the matter with what detachment I can and I have studied the accounts published in newspapers of what took place that night. I see why my name has been connected with the matter by the investigating detectives. Not only did I have what must be recognized by them as a motive but I was in the vicinity of the shop at the relevant time. I do not blame them for questioning me but I did not do it !”
The Vicar seemed quite overcome for a moment. Carolus looked away from him and took in details of the room in which they were sitting. A typical parson’s study, he supposed, not unlike the headmaster’s study at Queen’s School. There was a book-case full of dull books most of which had probably assisted Mr. Colbeck to obtain his degree and none of which seemed less than a decade old. There were groups of athletes on the walls from which it appeared that Mr. Colbeck had distinguished himself mildly in Cross-Country running and Cricket, since a younger, less hairy version of himself stood among groups of boys and men representing school or college in the 1920’s. These were framed in fumed oak and carried coloured crests. The furniture was of the solid kind bought in auctions and the carpet was a warm and gloomy piece of Brussels. The room smelt of pipe smoke.
“Mr. Deene,” said the Vicar at last, his voice not dropping in the least, “I have implied that I resent your part in this affair. I still resent it. I realize, however, that you may have worthy motives and that you are not actuated by malice. I am prepared to tell you the truth.”
If that is so, thought Carolus, you will be the first of them all to do it.
“Thank you,” he said aloud.
“I do not think it necessary to discuss this unfortunate weakness of my wife beyond saying that apart from it she is the most honourable of women. She has visited an excellent psychiatrist and we had hoped . . . But you know what happened. Terrible. Terrible. She did not inform me. I supposed her in Huntingdonshire with her sister. It was only after her conviction under her maiden name, scarcely reported in the newspapers fortunately, that she told me of her whereabouts. Imagine my feelings!”
“I went to see her. I met the Chaplain. If only I had been satisfied with that!”
“I do not believe that the Prison Officer concerned is an evilly-disposed person. Self-seeking, no doubt. Blundering and perhaps greedy. But not of malignant intent. Unhappily she was, as you say, acquainted with the woman Purvice and in order to obtain money she visited her and told her of my wife’s presence in . . . of my wife’s conviction. The woman, of course, seized on this. She had to the Prison Officer a sum intended to be spent on alleviating my wife’s situation. A matter of twenty pounds, I understand, half of which was counted as the Prison Officer’s perquisites and expenses. Then she communicated with me.”
Mr. Colbeck paused.
“I beg your pardon? Oh, how. Yes, she telephoned and asked me to call on her. She had, she said, a message from my wife. Needless to say I went to the shop on the following morning.”
Mr. Colbeck fell silent again. Carolus did not interrupt but sat waiting for him to go on.
“I don’t suppose you had ever been blackmailed, Mr. Deene. It is an experience which fortunately falls to very few people. But on all the torments devised by man for the destruction of man, this is the most cruel.
“It began very slowly, I might almost say gently. When this Mrs. Purvice first told me about the Prison Officer and my wife it was with a show of sympathy and concern. She seemed to be thinking only of my poor wife’s welfare and made me feel that it was lucky she was known to the Officer and so could form the liaison. Somebody should be sent, she said, but did not specify any sum as though this were an ordinary gift.
“I am not a wealthy man, Mr. Deene, far from it. My stipend can only be made to serve by the exercise of the very strictest economy and any sudden call on my resources is a considerable strain. However, by the sale of one or two articles in the house I was able to accumulate some fifteen pounds and went to see Mrs. Purvice. Quite patiently at first she explained that this would not be enough. The Officer expected her share and things were expensive. Then for the first time came the hint.
“ ‘These things have to be done discreetly,’ the woman said. ‘You wouldn’t want anyone to know where your wife was, would you?’
“I thought this over in the silence of the night. I was not yet sure of the woman’s intentions and I decided that next day I would know once and for all what they might be. I could ask her straight out how much money was necessary and her answer would tell me everything. This I did.
“Her reply staggered me. She spoke very softly always, as you may know, and would lean across the counter as if to whisper.
“ ‘I should say a hundred pounds to start with,’ she said.
“A hundred pounds! I had no prospect of raising any such sum and told her so. She answered with some vague generalization. ‘Things cost money nowadays,’ or something of the sort. But I could see precisely where this was leading. I knew, moreover, as if guided by instinct, that it was useless to appeal to any better feelings of the woman’s. There was only one thing to be done. Somehow that money must be raised.
“But what alarmed me most was the end of her remark. ‘To start with,’ she said. So there was to be an endless series of demands, continuing perhaps even after my wife was released. I felt that I could not face that. Some remedy would have to be found. I might even bring myself in time, I thought, to approach the police in the matter. I did not know. But for the time every effort I could make was bent on raising the sum of money.
“I do not wish to recall now the shifts to which I was reduced in order to achieve that. My poor brother who is scarcely able to support his own large family was kindness itself and one of my churchwardens who only knew that I was in distress of some kind, added his mite. It was not, however, until the very morning before the woman met her death that I was able to say that I had banked ready the whole sum which she demanded.
“I called on her and told her this. She seemed to accept it very calmly and gave me detailed instructions of how it was to be paid. I should cash small sums only, she said, drawing nothing from my bank. She would not accept any new notes in series. I was to bring the money to the shop before midnight.”
“Did anyone see you in her shop that morning?”
“I cannot tell whether I was seen to enter. I hoped to be mistaken for one for the customers, you see. As I managed I met a man I knew. He was once a chorister of mine but, as I once said lightly to my wife, he has turned from sacred to profane music and is now, I understand, the leader of a dance band in the town. His name is Sympson.”
“I know him,” said Carolus.
“I was pleased to run into him at that moment for I had the difficult problem of cashing a great number of small checks. I am not a businessman and scarcely knew how to go about it, or who I could ask without indiscretion. Sympson was kindness itself. He was able to introduce me to a number of shopkeepers and others of his acquaintance who were quite willing to accept my cheques. Needless to say I did not confide in him my reason for wishing to do this and he was tactful enough not to ask. I appreciated that.”
Carolus watched Mr. Colbeck closely, wondering whether any man could be as innocent-minded as this. But he said nothing.
“Since then the cheques I cashed in various places have come to the notice of the police and they have questioned me about them. I achieved the collection of the entire sum, one hundred pounds in one-pound notes, And at about eleven-thirty that evening set out for Market Street with this in my pocket. I met no one I knew. As I passed the Town Hall I noticed that there was a dance in progress. When I reached the shops in Market Street it must have been almost midnight.
“The shop was dark but I could see a light in the back room and tapped on the glass street door. I saw the woman emerge from that room and carefully shut the door behind her. She admitted me to the shop and we stood in darkness relieved only by the street lights and the dull light from the back room which has a glass-panelled door, curtained and probably dirty.”
“You are very accurate, Mr. Colbeck.”
“Do you think I haven’t been over every detail of this in my mind a thousand times? I handed my packet of notes to the woman and she left me standing there while she took it into the lighted back room, presumably in order to count. In a few minutes she came back and admitted that the sum was correct.
“ ‘I’ll let you know,’ she said, ‘when your wife needs anything more.”
“It was useless to argue. I said nothing at all and left her there. I distinctly remember that she locked the street door after I passed through it. That was the last sound I heard of that dreadful shop—the click as the key turned. As I passed St. John’s church it was striking midnight.”
Carolus waited for a moment then said very gently: “Did you go straight home, Mr. Colbeck?”
The Vicar of all Saints looked across with a doubtful, sore expression.
“No,” he said at last. “I was in great distress of mind. I must have walked about for nearly an hour.”
“Did you speak to anyone?”
“Or see anyone you knew?”
“So far as I recollect, no one. You must understand that I was not myself. I don’t think I should have noticed people if I had seen them.”
“Did you return to Number Eighteen Market Street, Mr. Colbeck?”
“No. That is, not to the shop itself. At some time during that walk in my agony of mind I half formed some idea of returning there and demanding the repayment of the money, whatever the consequences. I felt it was not mine, you see. My poor brother could ill afford what he had sent me. I even started to walk towards the shop and reached the corner of Market Street. But wiser counsels prevailed. I turned and walked away without having been nearer than that.”
“Have you told the police all this?”
“Well, no. But I have been thinking, Mr. Deene, that your intervention may, after all, have been a good thing. I shall feel relieved when I have given them the truth.”
“You may also be helping them. Your story as you have told it goes to shew that Mrs. Purvice was alive and in her usual state of mind at a few minutes before twelve that night.”
“Yes. Yes. I suppose it does.”
“Also, that she had with her in the shop a useful sum of money entirely in indistinguishable pounds notes. That sum has not been found.”
“Not quite indistinguishable, Mr. Deene. It chanced that I cashed one check for five pounds with old Mr. Critchley the antique dealer. He is something of an eccentric and makes a hobby of entering the numbers of the Treasury notes he receives. I understand that he has already given the police the numbers of those he handed to me.”
Carolus thanked Mr. Colbeck for his information. Even if it were not true, he thought, courtesy demanded that he should express gratitude for so many words.