At Death’s Door
It was at the end of that very trying day that Carolus began to see light. It happened quite suddenly while he was looking over his notes of the case. It was not that he discovered in an inspired flash the murderer’s identity, indeed it was some days before he even suspected that he knew that. It was rather, as he said later, the realization that he had been right in concentrating on evidence for which he could not account. It was a new line of thought, a series of sudden perceptions, which gave the whole case a different aspect.
He did not jump up and, as Rupert Priggley had predicted, shout Eureka! He sat quite still and said only “If . . . if . . . if . . .” It could be, this strange, inhuman possibility. If it were, much of his research and that of the police had been wasted. If it were, this was a highly ingenious crime. If it were, some concentrated thought over the information already accumulated ought to shew him the murderer.
He decided to go away for a few days. He wanted to be out of Newminster so that he could get things into perspective. Thought was what the case needed now, not more investigation or fact-finding. After the school had broken up tomorrow he would prepare to leave. He had not decided where he would go, but it must be somewhere quiet.
Next day he ran into John Moore near the station and the two went into a café, each hoping, perhaps, that the other might have something to confide. But Carolus soon saw that his friend intended to be cagey.
“The truth is, Carolus, that we think we’re nearly home. I shouldn’t be surprised if we make an arrest in a day or two. I really can’t tell you any more than that. What about you?”
Carolus shook his head.
“I’m back where I began,” he said.
John Moore grinned.
“I’m starting afresh on this case, John. I thought a good deal last night. I believe I’ve been moving in the wrong direction.”
The C.I.D. man was a sympathetic.
“Cheer up,” he said. “Perhaps, after all, it’s only that you have been moving in any direction at all. We try not to do that. We try to keep everything balanced.”
“I’ve always thought there was a key clue here. Last night, I believe, I discovered which it was. I’m going away for a bit to think about.”
“In accordance with the best precedents,” said John Moore. “Then you come back and tell us that we’re all wrong and that the murderer is X, who has never been suspected.”
“Something like that.”
“Where will you go?”
“For one reason or another out to Limbrick’s farm. That’s Pear Tree Farm at Hollistone.”
John Moore looked at Carolus curiously.
“Keeping in touch, eh? Want to watch the old man?”
“I want peace,” said Carolus. I want to forget schoolboys and history for a while. I want long lazy days in which to think this out.”
“Starting at the beginning again?”
“Wish you luck. Let me know if you find anything new.”
“If I do find anything, it will be quite new,” promised Carolus. “Now one last question, John. Have you any reason to suppose that Dick Purvice and Syd Sympson were ever associated in any way?”
“Oh yes. That’s common knowledge. They were friends when Purvice was here. It was from Sympson, as a matter of fact, that Geoff Baker heard that Purvice had been in the town on the afternoon before the murder.”
“Thanks. Now I won’t bother you again till I give you the name and address of the murderer neatly inscribed on a card. If you haven’t arrested him already.”
Carolus went home and told Mrs. Stick that he was going away next day; he did not know where. He wanted nothing forwarded and to all inquiries she could say that he was motoring but that he had not told her which direction he would take.
“I suppose you’re up to some mischief with your detection,” said Mrs. Stick with a sniff, and unsmilingly. “It’ll bring you into trouble one of these days. I’ll pack your things for you.”
If . . . if . . . if . . . thought Carolus. The theory that was beginning to form itself was a fantastic one, but how well it’s fitted certain facts. If . . .
He went to the door.
“I want my fishing rod,” he called to Mrs. Stick.
“It’s up in the attic, I’ll tell Stick to get it,” she called back. “Whatever have you done to this grey suit of yours? It looks as though you’ve been down a chimney in it! Pushed away at the back where you thought I wouldn’t find it!”
Carolus smiled and gave himself a drink. If his new theory help water it entirely changed the identity of the suspects. If . . .
The front door bell rang and Mrs. Stick came downstairs. He heard her open the door and a few minutes passed before she came to his study.
“Mrs. Slapper wants to see you.”
It would be difficult in a few syllables to convey more disapproval than Mrs. Stick did in those, though Carolus was unable to guess whether it were of him, or Connie Slapper, or her visit to this house.
“Have you said I’m in?”
“She knows you’re in, otherwise I would have told you’d gone away. I’d better say you won’t see her, hadn’t I?”
“No. Shew her in.”
Connie Slapper seemed a somewhat overpowering creature as she entered, a voluptuous but coarse woman in her early thirties. When she was seated she said in her rich big voice: “I’ve been Sent, Mr. Deene.”
Carolus resisted the condition to pretend ignorance of the occult significance of this by asking flatly who had sent her. Instead he offered his cigarette-case.
“Ta,” said Connie with an unexpected smile. It was clear that she was not wholly under the influence of the Great Unseen.
“I have heard that you are investigating my husband’s death and Mrs. Purvice’s.”
“I have been. I’ve really finished my investigations now.”
“You mean, you know who was guilty?”
“No. I’m afraid not. I mean, I’ve got all the facts available. Now I must sort them out.”
“Do you think you’ll find Jack’s murderer?”
“I am sure I shall. You see, Mrs. Slapper, I suddenly came to see this case in a new light. I don’t want to go into details but I am convinced I shall know in a few days who killed Mrs. Purvice and your husband.”
“In a new light?”
“I mean, a new approach, if you like.”
“You’re too clever for me,” said Connie Slapper archly. “I don’t understand all that. But there’s something I can tell you. I’ve had a Revelation.”
Carolus thought that there could be nothing on earth more tedious than a woman with second sight.
“How long have you been interested in the occult?” he asked.
“Oh, a long time.”
“On and off, yes.”
“What did you do about it?”
“Nothing, really. I read a good bit.”
“You didn’t belong to any Spiritualist organisation?”
“No. I don’t think Jack would have liked that.”
“Or attend any séance?”
“Not before this. No. I was just interested, as you might say.”
“And now, suddenly, you had had some experience which you think belongs to another world?”
“I saw Jack last night. I spoke to him.”
This was too much.
“Where?” asked Carolus.
“You mean, where was I when I had the Revelation? At Mrs. Grove’s. She called a special meeting of her little circle. I had never been there before though I’ve always been Interested. She hoped for great results. She said it was often easy to speak to one was just Passed Over.
“No. It upset me terribly. I thought I should faint. For a long time there was nothing, nothing. We were almost giving up hope when suddenly I heard Jack’s voice, quite loud and clear, speaking to me just has he often spoke.”
“Did anyone else hear it?”
“No. That was the strange and wonderful part. It was meant for me and I alone heard it.”
“What did this voice say?”
“First it said quite quietly and simply: ‘I’ve got such a headache, Con.’ Jack used to get into such bad headaches. But as Mrs. Groves said afterwards there was the way he’d been killed.”
“Yes,” said Carolus seriously.
“Then he said: ‘Don’t worry about me, Con. I’m all right. Look after yourself.’ Poor Jack. He was such an unselfish chap.
“Then he began to grow rather confused. He kept repeating something about forgiveness. ‘The other cheek,’ he said. That was not like Jack. He was not a spiteful man but he would not give way when it came to getting his own back. ‘It’s different now,’ he said. ‘It’s different here. The other cheek.’ I thought he’d finished. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then suddenly he said as plain as if he’d been alive and in the room with me—‘It was a woman, Con. It was a woman.’ I started to cry then. I couldn’t help it. That seemed to upset him. He only said one thing more. ‘Tell Mr. Deene,’ he said. That was all. Mrs. Grove tried again but we couldn’t get his voice. I was so upset by now that they had to send for a taxi to take me back to my sister’s place where I’ve been staying.”
Carolus said nothing.
“What do you think about it?”
“It’s very, very interesting,” said Carolus.
“Would it help you, do you think?”
“Yes. I think it will.”
“Does it fit your new ideas you were talking about?”
“Yes, in a way it does. Who was at this séance, Mrs. Slapper? I mean who was there who might be connected with Mrs. Purvice or your husband in any way?”
“Mr. Polling was there. He’s a great one for it from all accounts. Mrs. Drew was, too. She’s another who goes every time. There was only three more and I don’t think any of them knew Mrs. Purvice or Jack. A Mr. and Mrs. Greenside and Mrs. Pinks who works at Mr. Colbeck’s as a daily help. That was all. But none of them heard anything. I was the only one to hear poor Jack’s voice. You can imagine how upset I was.”
“Yes, I can. I’m very glad you came to tell me this.”
“I had to. It would have been Wrong not to. It does seem queer, though. A woman. How could a woman do it, Mr. Deene?”
“Quite possible. The police have never lost sight of the possibility. Now there is one small thing I should like to ask you. While you were at Mrs. Grove’s among those people who regularly met for séances, did you hear anything of the one held on the night of the murders?”
Connie looked at Carolus rather sharply.
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“Mrs. Purvice went to all of them, apparently. They were held on the last Tuesday of the month. Did anyone say whether she was expected that night?”
“I don’t remember anything being said.”
“I hoped perhaps you’d heard it discussed. I should like to know whether she told them she was not coming, and why, or whether it was a last-minute decision.”
“They didn’t say anything. I don’t think she was all that regular in going. She may not have felt like it that night. Well, there’s nothing for me to tell you. I did think you ought to hear about that about it being a woman though.”
“Yes. I’m most grateful.”
She stood up.
“I’m glad it’s going to help you. I hope you bring her to justice if it’s true.”
Connie Slapper had scarcely left when Mrs. Stick came into the room.
“I’m very sorry, sir, but I’m afraid Stick and me will have to give notice.”
“How’s that, Mrs. Stick?”
“I never thought where we came to work for you there would be persons like that coming at all hours.”
“Oh come. She’s a silly woman but . . .”
Mrs. Stick’s small thin face was flushed.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you, sir, that she is no better than she ought to be. I’ve known her since she was a little girl and I wouldn’t like to say half the things I’ve heard.”
“Really, Mrs. Stick, aren’t you being just a little uncharitable?”
“No, sir, I’m not. I shan’t mention any names but I have seen her myself with a married man at night.”
“She was with a married man on the night of the murder, Mrs. Stick, but he was a policeman, young Geoffrey Baker, taking her home to wait for her husband.”
Mrs. Stick gave Carolus a long look.
“I won’t say any more, sir. I never was one for tittle-tattle. But I know what I know.”
“And you don’t like the police.”
“No. I don’t, sir. Nor doesn’t Stick. And if that young woman is to come popping in here at all times because you’re going in for being a detective when you’ve got other things to think about I can’t bring myself to stay.”
“You must do as you think best. I shall be very sorry to lose you both.”
“We shall be sorry to go. It’s only since you’ve started poking round with murder and that.”
“I tell you what, Mrs. Stick. If Mrs. Slapper comes here again you can say I’m not in. Will that do?”
“There’s others,” said Mrs. Stick darkly. “Oh, I know I’ve no right to speak but I’m sure I’ve always looked after you as best I can and I don’t like to see you getting yourself mixed up in such things. That woman! I knew her when she was Connie Smith. There was talk about her then. Still, if you’re not going to have her in the house again, I’m sure Stick and me don’t want to leave.”
“Don’t, then. We’ll consider your notice as withdrawn. I don’t want to see Mrs. Slapper again. I’m off in the morning, remember. Only about a week, I expect.”
“It’ll give me a chance to get this room done,” said Mrs. Stick, casting her order-loving eye over the chaos of the writing-table. That’ll be something.