At Death’s Door
PEAR TREE FARM
“Narrowing it down?” asked Rupert Priggley when he called on Carolus that evening.
“No. Broadening it out.”
“I’ve got the information that you wanted. It’ll broaden it a bit further, I should think.”
“What information was that?”
“The two pet shop women and their dog. I think I know where they would have put it.”
“You don’t sound wildly thrilled. I suppose you’ve crossed them off your list by now.”
“I haven’t got a list. Let’s hear what you know.”
“Marcia, the one who looks as though she plays rugger, appears to have sprung from nowhere and have no friends or relatives. Jane, on the other hand, the one who might be satisfied with a fling at lacrosse or netball, is a local farmer’s daughter. They met when Marcia went to the farm as a land girl.”
“Jane’s father is a truculent old character, a widower with two daughters. Jane was able to get away and start her shop because her sister remained at the farm to look after ‘papa’.”
“Where is this farm?”
“Six miles out at Hollistone. Pear Tree Farm is its ridiculous name and the house stands alone at the end of an almost impassable drive or lane. If you’re going I should go armed.”
“What makes you think the dog is there?”
“Obvious, isn’t it? But there’s something more than that. I bought a pint for Bill Cobb.”
“You bought a pint? Do you mean you took him into a pub?”
“I don’t know where else they sell beer.”
“You’ll get yourself expelled if you behave like that.”
“I don’t think so. I was carrying out a master’s orders, you see. You told me to find out about this.”
“Yes, but not to go into a pub, you young blackguard.”
“Nothing else for it. Cobb would never talk otherwise. Anyhow I had nothing but shandy.”
“Who is this Bill Cobb, anyway?”
“Works at the Market Garage. Lives over the top of it. He says the pair of them, Marcia and Jane, took their car out that night.”
“I didn’t know they had a car.”
“It’s one of those home-made station-wagon efforts. It’s pretty battered and makes a hell of a noise. That’s how Bill knows they went out. He says you couldn’t mistake the sound of that engine.”
“About half-past one. He doesn’t know what time they came back. Their car was in when he opened up in the morning.”
“So now you want me to take you up to this Pear Tree Farm and find the dog.”
“That, roughly speaking, is the idea.”
“And what do we do when we’ve found the dog?”
“Confront them with it. With the fact that you know, I mean.”
“And what good will that do?”
Rupert shrugged elaborately.
“Don’t ask me, he pleaded. “But it’s all part of the nonsense, isn’t it? You must be getting somewhere with these delicious facts.”
“All right. We’ll go out tomorrow. Unless you’re playing cricket?”
“Cricket?” queried Rupert. “I play once a term—for the house. Last year I made fifty-seven.”
“I quite believe it. The Devil looks after his own.”
“All the ‘keen youngsters’ at the nets. I feel faintly ill at the thought of it. I’ve nothing against the game, as games go. It’s the appalling hocus-pocus that surrounds it.”
“You’re an unnatural young prig.”
“That may be. But I’m perfectly prepared to accompany you to the Pear Tree Farm, where nothing but violence awaits us. Into the jaws of death. If half of what I’ve heard of old Limrick is true we shan’t get out alive. And you talk of cricket. See you at two tomorrow?”
That night it rained but when the two sets out in the Bentley that day the sun had returned and it was a glorious afternoon. The road passed through fragrant lanes and a small torpid village. At last they reached a point on a high hill from which they could see the spires and roofs of Newminster idealized by distance. It was a beautiful view.
“ ‘Look thy last on all things lovely’,” quoted Rupert. “That’s the farm.”
They had reached a five-barred gate through which they could see a narrow lane between hedges. The vegetation was lush here and overgrew the banks in odorous abundance. The gate bore in large letters the inscription: PEAR TREE FARM. No Admittance Except on Our Business.
“You see the sort of thing?” said Rupert. “Not exactly welcoming. But drive on.”
A hundred yards brought them to another gate inscribed––BEWARE OF THE BULL. Rupert swung it open. On the way up to the house was a board: NOTICE. FIERCE DOGS. No Responsibility Taken for Visitors.
“Homely, isn’t it?” said Rupert. “Shall we drive up to the front door or stop here and make noises like owls?”
They drove on. The building ahead of them was the most peaceful-looking place imaginable, a quiet Queen Anne farmhouse dreaming among its herbaceous borders. A pond once used for watering cattle had now been rendered ornamental and a few ducks lazily ruffled its surface. Except for their sounds and the birdsong and a faint rustle of wind there was silence. The front door of the house stood open, so did the windows.
Carolus pulled an old bell cord and there were tinkling echoes from the back of the house, but no one came. They tried again but still there was a dreamy silence unbroken by even a dog’s bark.
The farm buildings were a hundred yards away and completely new, it seemed; the only one of the original ones was an old barn at the back of the house which seemed to have become a part of the domestic group.
“Better go down to the farm, I suppose,” said Carolus regretfully.
They were about to set off when theyheard a step on the gravel and saw a approaching them with quick lengthy strides and swinging arms a powerful-looking white-haired man in a tweed hat.
“Who the devil are you and what do you want?” he shouted while he was still some distance away. “Didn’t you see my notices?” He was coming nearer but still preferred to raise his voice. “Who gave you permission to bring that piece of machinery up my drive? My father had a board up, ALL MOTORISTS WILL BE SHOT, and by heaven I ought to have the same! What do you want, hey? Don’t stand there mouthing at me, sir. What do you want?”
Carolus became very calm. He stood perfectly still as Mr. Limbrick thundered close to him.
“I’ve come to recover a stolen dog,” he said, and for once the word icy may be used without exaggeration for a man’s manner.
Mr. Limbrick became apoplectic.
“You’ve what? Did you say a stolen dog? You stand on my front step and talk to me about a stolen dog? I’ve horsewhipped a man for less than that!”
“I’ve sent a man to prison for less than that,” said Carolus. “Apart from being a grossly ill-mannered fellow you are a receiver of stolen goods.”
“Mr. Limbrick’s temper had now overtoppled its edge and he became suddenly lofty and rather theatrical.
“I can only suppose that I have to deal with a lunatic,” he said. “If I must humour you, sir, I require to know what kind of dog you’re looking for.”
“I am looking for the half-grown fox terrier which was stolen by your daughter and her friend from the house next door to theirs. It was brought here by car in the small hours of the morning. You will remember the date because on that night the owner of the house they had entered was murdered.”
Mr. Limerick at first made noises expressing outraged incredulity: “Faugh!” and “Pooh!” and “What the hell!” Then when Carolus remained quite silent he began to recover his protective anger, the only defence he could well muster.
“Lots of infernal nonsense. Who’s been stuffing your head with this idiotic story? Damned insolence, anyway, your coming here to repeat it to me. Slander, too.” Mr. Limbrick had chanced on a new line of attack and followed it eagerly. “Serious slander, this. If I take you to a court of law, sir. I shall strip you of every farthing you possess. Accusations of this kind can’t be made wholesale, you know. Receiving, you said. I shan’t forget that. Receiving stolen goods.”
Carolus seemed bored.
“Where is the dog?” he said.
Mr. Limbrick looked as though he was going to explode. But just then a woman appeared. She resembled Jane but was older, thinner and more pinched, clearly the sister who stayed at home. With an ease that surprised but rather amused his visitors Mr. Limbrick was able to turn the whole force of his wrath against her alliance with Jane and Marcia.
“You see what your sister has done?” he shouted. “I have to stand here before my own house and be called a liar and a receiver of stolen goods because of her infernal tricks and graces! I’m let in for an action for slander and have the peace of my home shattered because my daughters can’t behave themselves. You encouraged her and that friend of hers as you always have done. I warned you. . . .”
Carolus cut in.
“I’m sorry, Miss Limbrick. Your father’s in a state of passion because he’s so hopelessly in the wrong. If he had shewn the least courtesy or honesty I shouldn’t have provoked him.”
Ann Limbrick made one of the bravest remarks of her life.
“There you are, father. What did I tell you?”
The opening sound of what was to be the roar of a maddened lion was interrupted by Carolus.
“It’s not the least use your shouting at your daughter. Don’t let us prolong this quite ridiculous scene. I have satisfied myself that the dog is here and can go back to Newminster.”
“I . . . You . . . This is monstrous. The dog . . . Take the infernal dog, sir. I wash my hands of it. I’ll have no part of parcel in the matter. Go and get the creature, Ann.”
“But, father . . .”
“Don’t mince and mumble, girl. Go and get the dog and give it to this fellow and see he takes himself off my ground. I’ll take no responsibility, sir. What my daughters do is no affair of mine. I refuse to become embroiled in this vulgar chicanery. And who are you, for that matter? Who are you to threaten and insult me in this way?”
“I’m a schoolmaster,” said Carolus casually and as he hoped provokingly. “And an amateur detective. A dabbler. I am playing round with crime out of sheer curiosity.”
To the amazement of Carolus and Rupert this produced a totally unexpected effect. Mr. Limbrick ceased to roar.
“You are? And you have the grace to admit it? This is something new. Crime, eh? Do you read Agatha Christie, sir?”
“Now there’s a woman who knows how to write of detection. I’ve read every word she has written. Every single word. And Gladys Mitchell. What you think of Gladys Mitchell? Far-fetched at times but you can’t catch her out, you know. You can’t pick the murderer by merely taking the least likely of her suspects. Then there’s Punshon . . . Why didn’t you say before that you were an amateur detective? Why couldn’t you explain that your interest was an academic one?”
“It isn’t, altogether. I want to see the murderer hanged.”
Mr. Limbrick looked delighted.
“Of course you do. It’s the proper attitude. Go and get the dog, Ann. I entirely agree with capital punishment. An eye for an eye, sir. The only thing. And who is the murderer in this case?”
Carolus shewed a little amusement.
“As a reader of detective fiction you surely understand that the detective never discloses that until the end? Even if he knows.”
“Of course. Of course. I stand rebuked. But is not above shewing which way the wind blows, is he? What do you think of Lorac, sir? And John Rhodes? Some neat little problems there. The Americans, too. There are some first-rate American detective writers. Obsessed with the necessity for action, I admit. Must have more murders and bumps in the night all the time, but splendid solutions. What an art! What a game! Had I known you were a detective, an amateur detective, sir, I should have been helpful from the first. Though I don’t quite see how this dog is going to help you, I must say.”
Nor did Carolus. But he kept up a brave front.
“A piece of the puzzle, Mr. Limbrick.”
“Quite. Of course. I understand. Now what can I offer you? It is four o’clock. A cup of tea? A whisky-and-soda?”
“Thank you, but . . .”
Carolus was interrupted by Rupert.
“Mr. Deene had to miss his lunch today,” he said. “On the job, you understand. Interviewing a suspect. He would like some tea, I’m sure. . . .”
“Of course. Ann! Wilkinson! Tea! This is a farmhouse, Mr. Deene, and we will shew you. . . . A couple of new laid eggs? Splendid. Come in. Come in. Mason was one of the best of them, you know. I often think that classics like At the Villa Rose or Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case will never be surpassed. Then Freeman Wills Croft. What a field it is!”
Ann appeared with the fox terrier, evidently one of the litter Carolus had seen in the pet shop.
“Here’s your clue!” shouted Mr. Limbrick happily. “Now come and see what refreshment we can find for you. Ann, my dear, Mr. Deene missed his lunch. Interviewing a suspect. We will have tea in the dining-room. See what you can do, will you, my dear? Detectives are accustomed to the best.”
Ann left the room and Mr. Limbrick turned to Carolus.
“I didn’t know the murdered woman,” he said, “but oddly enough I knew the policeman. He was stationed out here for a time and we found him a very conscientious man. A little too meticulous, perhaps. A terrible stickler for returning routine. You could set your watch by Slapper’s movements. But a good chap, Mr. Deene. A very good chap.”
They sat down a quarter of an hour later to a repast which might have been planned to please a hungry schoolboy. Home-made jam and cake, cream, fruit, scones and delicious oven-baked bread spread with saffron-coloured butter from the farm dairy. Carolus was confronted with two brown eggs.
“I suppose my daughter and her friend are on your list of suspects?” said Mr. Limbrick affably while Rupert Priggley was doing justice to the meal. “I don’t find that very alarming though. I’ve known too many of these lists to worry when I hear that Jane figures on one of them. When you find your murderer she will return to her own identity, as it were. A fascinating task yours. I have often wished I could find occasion to test my wits in such a case.”
“Yes. With my very wide reading on the subject I feel I can surprise some of you. But we lead too retired a life here, perhaps. It is only on such an occasion as this that I hear anything of crime. Are you a fisherman, Mr. Deene.”
“Not much of one, I’m afraid.”
“A pity. I was going to invite you to spend a few days on our little river. Nothing very elaborate, you know. But reasonably good sport.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“Any time. A ’phone call. We should be delighted. I should like you to see my collection of books on criminology. Fascinating field. And you could tell me how the winds of suspicion were veering.”
“At the moment there’s a lull,” said Carolus rather dully.
“Never mind. That will pass. You’ll soon come on some astonishing information. From my daughter, perhaps. Then we shall see fireworks. Meanwhile, do come and fish, if you feel inclined. There’s a little stretch of water which I’m told gives very good sport. I used to let Slapper come out and fish there—a keen fishermen, Slapper. A very good fellow, too. I’m sorry about Slapper. Very sorry indeed.”