At Death’s Door, Chapter Twenty

At Death’s Door 


Mr. Gorringer, the headmaster of Queen’s School, Newminster, pressed the bell on his study table to summon the school porter, an individual only slightly less humourless and pompous than the headmaster himself.  He needed to be without much sense of the comic in order to wear the curious uniform provided for him.  This was an innovation of Mr. Gorringer’s and was based on his conception of a school porter’s garb at one of the larger public schools—a gold-braided silk hat and dark blue frock coat with silver buttons.
Muggeridge, the porter, entered.
“You rang, sir,” he said.  It was an accusation rather than a question, for he had been eating a piece of bread and cheese in his lodge when the bell sounded.
“Yes, Muggeridge.  I wish to see Mr. Deene.”
Mugridge disapproved of Carolus almost as much as Mr. Gorringer did.
“I will endeavour to find him, sir.  Mr. Deene does not often stay in the school grounds out of class time.”
“Immediately, please, Muggeridge.”
The porter looked pained and withdrew.  He never hurried but stalked sedately about the grounds.  It was thus nearly a quarter of an hour before Carolus appeared.
“Hullo, headmaster,” he said, as he always did.  “You wanted to see me?”
“Sit down, please,” replied Mr. Gorringer who knew and resented the breezy manner of Carolus.
“Beastly day, isn’t it?” said Carolus.  “I thought that weather couldn’t last.  Still, we break up tomorrow, thank God.  I’ve never known a term to drag as this one has.”
“Mr. Deene, I’ve asked you to come and see me on a most serious and unpleasant matter.  I has reached my ears . . .”  Carolus found himself staring at the organs which the headmaster had mentioned.  ‘What big ears you have, grandma,’ he said to himself.
Things were perpetually reaching the headmaster’s ears.  Sometimes, Carolus wondered whether it were not rather that his ears stretched out like feelers to reach for things themselves.  They looked today as though they were fixed at right angles to his head.  ‘If I am to keep a straight face,’ thought Carolus, ‘he must not mention ears again.’
“It has reached my ears that you have been spending your time in playing detective in the town in connection with this very squalid murder which has brought the whole place and its institutions into disrepute.”
“I don’t much care for ‘playing’.  It sounds somewhat invidious to me, as though it originated with the police.”
“The police!” gasped the headmaster.  Carolus might have mentioned something obscene.  “That is just what I am concerned about.  Do you think I want the police in the school?”
“You might be very glad of them if there was a murder or anything.”
“Please do not be flippant, Mr. Deene.”
“I should have thought that to mention murder was far from being flippant.  However, I daresay we differ on our sense of the comic.” .
“That would seem highly probable,” said Mr. Gorringer.
“I think you might tell me how you know this.”
“I see no reason to do so, but I will remind you that we have boys here in the school who may have some legitimate connection with the case.”
“You mean, young Colbeck?”
“Colbeck!  Certainly not.  What possible connection could Colbeck have?  His father is the Vicar of a local parish, a man of the highest principle and repute.  Why should you name Colbeck?
“I thought perhaps a little bird might have whispered in your ear,” said Carolus, privately visualising a large vulture or an overcommunicative stork on the headmaster’s shoulder.  “Colbeck senior is a star suspect.”
“Impossible!” cried the headmaster.
“It’s true enough,” said Carolus.  “Gives the case an air of respectability, though, doesn’t it?  A vicar among the possibles.”
“But how . . . what possible . . .”
“It’s all very simple.  You’ll hear about it if the police arrest him, of course.”
“Mr. Deene, is such a thing came about I should hold you personally responsible for the harm it might do to the good name of the school.  I shudder to think of it.  I must ask you to see that Mr. Colbeck is instantly cleared of all suspicion.  You know you must know perfectly well that he merits none.”
“I can’t do that, I’m afraid.  Particularly since, as you had just said, you want me to drop the case.”
I must ask you not to be flippant, Mr. Deene.  This is a most great and embarrassing matter.  It has set us all by the ears.”  Carolus looked again at the headmaster’s.  More like limbs than features, he decided.  “Without my knowledge you have apparently been taking an active part in investigations into the death of this woman Purvice and the police constable named, I understand, Slapper.  You have so far forgotten yourself as to form theories involving one of our parents.  You are, in a word, embroiled in this crime.”
“I find that sort of thing interesting.  Yes.”
“Interesting!  But Mr. Deene, I have to think of the good name of the school.  I can’t have a member of my staff hob-nobbing with murderers and policemen.  Or crawing about with a magnifying glass for that matter.  Or lending his ear to all the vilest scandal in the town.  Several of the parents are very concerned.  Can it be true that you actually dropped into a house by the skylight and startled the inhabitants in an effort to prove something or other?  It has even been suggested that certain of the boys are aware of your part in these proceedings and have been gambling among themselves on the success or otherwise of your efforts.  You must surely see, Mr. Deene, that we can’t have that.
Carolus glanced at his watch.  If he made no reply he knew that this would last no more than another five minutes whereas if he offered any argument it might easily continue for half an hour.  He kept quiet.
“Of course I am well aware of the excellent literary work you have done in a highly specialized field by reconsidering some of the crimes of history.  But this is a very different matter.  I understand that the woman was a most disreputable creature, suspected of blackmail or receiving stolen goods, and was up to the ears in crime.  A thoroughly squalid and vulgar affair.  Can you wonder that I am concerned to hear that one of my staff has become embroiled?  I could scarcely believe my ears when I was told about it.”
Those ears again, thought Carolus.  About three minutes more now, he calculated.
“I’m very distressed about it, Mr. Deene.  Very distressed.  I hardly know what to say.  I appreciate much of your work.  I know you had a faculty for interesting the boys in what you teach and your pupils have certainly been most successful in public examinations.  But crime of this kind . . . it’s really quite alarming.  Had you been merely a superior consultant of some kind, one to whom the police turned for advice in a difficult matter, I should have taken no notice of the stories I’ve heard.  They would have gone in at one ear and out at the other.”  Carolus was fascinated by the metaphor.  “But I hear you have hung round dance halls and public houses to obtain the information you required.  You must surely see that such conduct is not consistent with the status of a senior assistant at the school.  I could have turned a deaf ear . . .”  Only one year, this time, Carolus noted.  The large left one with the mole on it or the large white one unblemished?  “I could have turned a deaf ear to some minor indiscretion, but not to this, Mr. Deene.”
One more disquisition, anticipated Carolus, and the tedium would be over.
“I don’t want to make more than is necessary of this, Mr. Deene.  I should like you to regard this as a small piece of personal advice, a word in your ear, no more.”  Mine this time, thought Carolus, disappointed.  “But we must have no more of it.  You do see that?  No more at all.”
“Well, headmaster.  I don’t know. . . .  I hardly think . . .” hesitated Carolus.  He was annoyed with himself for having broken his silence and delayed the final peroration.
“Yes, Mr. Deene?” encouraged the headmaster, the scent of battle in his nostrils.  “You were going to say something?  You had some defence in this matter?  Come now.  I’m all ears.”
You’re telling me, thought Carolus vulgarly.  Aloud he said only that term ends tomorrow.  The implication was that the headmaster’s jurisdiction did not extend to the holidays.
“So long as you appreciate my point of view,” conceded the headmaster.  “Well, thank you, Mr. Deene.”
At last, said Carolus, making for the open.  But now it was nearly time for afternoon school and he would not be able to do the morning crossword.  Damn that pompous ass.
He had the Senior Fifth this afternoon, he remembered.  They should have Gtladstone and Disraeli and nothing else from bell to bell.  He would not be beguiled into discussion of the case.  Even if it were the last afternoon of term.
“William Ewart Gladstone,” he began firmly when he was on his rostrum, “was born in 1809 and educated at Eton and Christ College.”
“Mr. Gorringer’s an old Etonian, isn’t he?” said the the spectacled boy, Simmons.
“I have no idea what the headmaster where the headmaster was educated,” reported Carolus crisply.
“All right, put in Rupert Priggley.  “You needn’t be so snooty, sir, just because he’s been telling you what has reached his ears about the case.”
“Priggley, you’re a boor.  Shut up.  Gladstone was president of the Oxford Union and got a double first in classics and mathematics . . .”
“So did you, didn’t you, sir?” put in Simmons.
“It could scarcely have been in history,” said Rupert.  “I mean you don’t get a first for knowing who put the poison in King John’s lampreys, do you?  Come off it, sir.  It’s the last lesson of term.  You’ve got to tell us about the case.  There’s too much money involved to let you get away without some sort of information.  If you don’t know who did it you might make a guess.  It would at least give those who backed you a sporting chance.”
“You are the most odious collection of nitwits I’ve ever met,” said Carolus.  “I couldn’t make any sort of a guess.”
“Do the police know yet, sir?”
“No.  It’s a case which needs a lot of thought.  The possibilities are almost endless.”
“One way and another,” said Rupert Priggley, “there seems to have been quite a bit doing round Purvice’s shop that evening.”
“There was,” said Carolus.  “And the trouble is nobody seriously denies his part in the general mayhem.  What do you do when you have half a dozen people apparently eager to explain that they were on the scene of the crime at more or less the right time?”
“Shut your eyes and stick a pin in,” suggested Rupert.  “Could a case be built against almost any of them?”
“That’s what the police are reputed to do.”
“The police in this case are extremely conscientious.  When they do arrest someone it will be because they know.”
“And you don’t?”
“Not yet.  I want to think.  How can any man think when has to teach a class like this?”
“The correct thing is for you to go away from it all, then suddenly, as you’re walking across the Yorkshire Moors or sailing on the Norfolk Broads, you shout Eureka !  Then you hurry back and grab your man just before he commits another murder.  It’s been done scores of time in all the best detective fiction.”
“Yes,” said Carolus.  “I know it has.  And oddly enough it might work in this case.  I’ve felt for some time that I needed some salient fact, something we’ve all missed, a detail of which we haven’t realized the significance, and it would all fall into line.”
“Very nice too, particularly if it doesn’t come to you till about a week after the police have settled for Dick Purvice or Jimmy Drew or someone.
“That’s a chance you must take.  I didn’t ask you to believe I’d find a solution.  This, after all, is my first case.”
“Don’t make excuses, sir.  You’ll be a Big Disappointment to us if you don’t do something snappy.”
There were moans but Carolus, as Rupert said afterwards, got tough and shewed that the headmaster under-rated him as a disciplinarian.  He made the Senior Fifth listen to the end of the lesson to an account of that long-lived statesman’s very mixed career.
As Carolus was hurrying towards the gates afterwards he saw the headmaster standing on the gravel square talking with Tubley the music master.  To his alarm their conversations ceased as he approached and Mr. Gorringer turned to Carolus.  Now his manner was one of lofty affability, for his reproof had been administered and he wanted to shew himself forgiving and friendly.  Besides, it was his wont to adopt a formal and severe attitude in his study so that he could unbend on such occasions as this.
“Ah, Deene!” he said, beaming.  “Finished with the Senior Fifth for the term?  Splendid.  Splendid.  I have been thinking over the matter on which I spoke to you earlier.  I did not, perhaps, make myself clear on one point.  I do not wish to discourage you from using your talents in these matters to assist the police so long as you act in a purely consultative capacity.  It is when I hear of things which seem to be undignified that I have to intrude my advice.”
“Murder isn’t a very dignified sort of crime, headmaster.”
“No, indeed.  You have a point there.  But you know what I mean.  By the way . . . what are the results of your investigations?  Or perhaps I shouldn’t ask.”  The headmaster became ponderously facetious.  “One must never question a detective until he is ready to elucidate.  I understand.  But I feel I’m entitled to a peep behind the scenes.  Who did kill this Mrs. Purvice and the policeman who found her corpse?”
“Really, headmaster, I thought the whole sordid thing was beneath your notice.”
“Officially, quite.  As headmaster of the school is my duty to banish such topics.  But under the gown and mortarboard, my dear Deene, is a man as curious as the next.”
“You really want to know who killed Emily Purvice?”
“I would give my ears to know!” admitted the headmaster.
“Then I really must really make an effort to find out,” said Carolus.
“Ah, the inscrutable mask must be worn, I see.  We mustn’t seek to probe the mysteries.  I quite understand, my dear Deene.  I do not suppose I shall see you again before we disperse.  You will be going away, perhaps?  No?  But then you have such comfortable quarters here.”
At last Carolus battled his way to the gates before the headmaster good question him further.