At Death’s Door
Carolus detested fishing. His rod and and line and what knowledge he had of the sport came from a long-dead uncle whose passion it had been. He could still remember days spent with Uncle Mark by the riverside, days which would have been idyllically happy if his uncle, a Cambridge don, had not insisted on attention and co-operation from Carolus while he hooked the little shining creatures from the water.
Carolus had been fond of Uncle Mark and could never quite reconcile the old chap’s gentle friendliness with his ferocious lust for getting a barbed book into the gullet of a trout or salmon and landing the poor struggling sliver of life. Uncle Mark was incapable of conscious cruelty and was able to convince himself that fish suffered no pain ‘because they had cold blood’. Watching their radiant beauty, seeing their throats torn and their frantic twisting and struggling, Carolus decided for himself that though anglers did not mean to be cruel, were often, indeed, the best and most thoughtful of mankind, their art, whether they knew it or not, was one which tortured its victims. He resolved that he would never practice it.
Since Uncle Mark had given it to him his rod had remained untouched, but it was serving its Purvice now. His host was delighted, it seemed, to think that he was providing sport for a private detective. Mr. Limbrick watched with glee as Carolus marched off in the morning after listening to his instructions. He did not fish himself, being a surprisingly hard worker on his farm, but he liked to think of Carolus enjoying a day on his water.
It was just what Carolus wanted. Alone with the never-ceasing babble of the stream he could lie at ease and think. And it would surprise no one that he came home at night with an empty basket.
On his first day, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, in the full blaze of a hot July sun, Carolus felt suddenly afraid. The place to which Limbrick had directed him was lonely, but a quarter of a mile away and lane ran between hedges, dividing Limbrick’s land from the next farm. As Carolus dozingly listened, a car crawled down this lane, its chromium flashing intermittently through the hedge. Then the car stopped and for a while Carolus thought no more about it.
Suddenly, however, he noticed that the birds in a little copse a couple of hundred yards away had been disturbed. It was then that he knew this cold and gripping fear. Someone had come secretly from the car to the to that copse, following a thick hedge. Someone who knew where Carolus was likely to be. Someone who wanted to watch him. Someone who feared him, perhaps, and whom he must fear.
The very peace and warmth of his surroundings made this more dark and menacing. In the placid afternoon and under a jubilant lark singing high over them, with the rich smell of green bracken and wild flowers in the hedges, someone was creeping undercover to peer out from among the trees. Whoever it was intended to kill, Carolus believed. He lowered himself towards the stream so that he was no longer exposed to view from the copse, but he knew that this was too late. The one watching had seen what he expected to see. The resting-place of Carolus was not a mystery.
Presently he heard the car being started up and driven away. He saw the chromium flash again but he could not be sure of the car’s colour. He recovered his peace of mind and decided that he had been a little melodramatic in supposing that someone wanted to kill him. There could be many other explanations. The police might consider it necessary to keep an eye on him. One of his pupils might have found out when he was and come to observe him. And since he had given no opinion, yet, about the identity of the murderer it would seem that he had admitted no knowledge dangerous enough to invite him or her to strike again.
He lit a cigarette and, lying back, looked up to the sky. Too fleecy drifts of snowy white were all that broke its blue, and Carolus let the full heat of the sun fall on his face. If . . . he thought, if his watcher of a few minutes ago were the murderer, he would return, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow. . . . If his new theory held water the murderer was a man or woman who would stop at nothing. If the murderer knew by means which were rapidly becoming clear to Carolus that Carolus was dangerous to him, he would try to kill him as ruthlessly as he had killed Purvice and Slapper.
Now was the murderer’s chance. If you knew so much of the opinions and movements of Carolus, he must know, too, that Carolus had not yet told anyone the details of his new theory. If he struck now, whatever knowledge was dangerous to him would die with Carolus. He would not hesitate, then.
Yet Carolus had faith in his own security. He was not afraid, in a sense, at all, but filled with tension, expecting something to happen at any moment. The chill of terror which had ran down him when he saw the tell-tale flight of birds from that copse had been a natural reaction. That had passed. The murderer would strike, yet with a few ordinary precautions Carolus could defeat him.
He was safe, for instance, as long as he was by the stream here for no one could approach him without breaking cover. If he were right in his now formulating suspicions of the murderer’s identity, he was safe at the house, too. Was not this . . . suspense in any case what he had asked for when he had allowed himself to be drawn into the case?
An hour after the car had driven away Carolus fell into a hot and troubled sleep which lasted till it was time to go back to the farm house and admit that he had fished all day and caught nothing.
Dinner at Pear Tree Farm was an event. Mr. Limbrick gave the impression that he would have liked to wear a dinner jacket and expect his guest to do the same, but contented himself with a change from the clothes he had worn all day. He talked merrily enough about death and bloodstains, rigor mortis and dead men’s fingerprints, deduction and confession. He discussed credulity.
“I will believe almost anything an author asks me to believe,” he said. “I can believe in a snake trained to kill and referred to in a woman’s dying words as the spotted band. I will even swallow, metaphorically, of course, that strange Eastern drug which is unknown to the pharmacopœia and leaves no trace. I can believe in a league of red-headed men and a man killed by tintinnabulation. There is only one writer who asks too much of me, and he is one of the best—Chesterton.”
“Ah,” said Carolus, as though he were Mr. Gorringer coming on his quarry.
“Are you going to ask me to believe,” demanded Mr. Limbrick rhetorically, “that a man on the top of a church tower could aim a hammer at the head of a man in the churchyard below? Am I expected to credit the fact that a murderer could walk out with a corpse in a sack unobserved by a number of people watching the house simply because he was wearing the uniform of a postman? No, sir. Chesterton demanded too much. His own faith could move mountains and he expected as much from his readers. Ann, my dear, the port has stopped at you.”
Carolus duly appreciated the port.
“It will be interesting to see,” went on Mr. Limbrick, “what far-fetched assumption you will expect us to make in this case. Personally, I am prepared for anything, even for finding myself your chief suspect.”
Carolus smiled without seeming to feel much amusement.
“Have you mentioned to anyone that I am staying here?” he asked abruptly.
“Certainly not. I have respected your confidence.”
“And you,” Miss Limbrick?” Carolus asked with a hint of sharpness, since Ann had got up to leave the two men with their port.
“No!” said Ann.
“Not even your sister?”
“No, Mr. Deene. Father asked me what to mention it and I haven’t.”
“Thank you.” Alone with Limbrick, watching him closely, Carolus went on: “A strange thing happened today.”
“If I were one of Chesterton’s characters I should say that strange things happen every day and none more strange than sunrise and sunset, or something of the sort.”
“I ought perhaps to explain that it was an unpleasant thing,” said Carolus and described the stopping of the car and the unknown watcher’s behaviour.
Limbrick was airy about it.
“A dozen explanations,” he said. “Someone looking at my wheat. A couple seeking privacy. One of your schoolboys. A Government inspector spying out the land. That’s highly probable.”
“You may be right. But I had a very strong feeling that I was under hostile observation. That I was in danger.”
“In that case, Mr. Deene, you must know too much. It is the classic explanation. You may not even be aware of your own knowledge. It may be something you know without realizing its significance. But if you are really being threatened the explanation is that you had expressed to someone, who has conveyed your words to the murderer, or have said to the murderer himself, something which you know and no one else investigating knows, something which, rightly interpreted, would reveal the murderer’s identity.”
“It may be,” said Carolus. “It was a most unpleasant sensation, anyway. It’s all very well for you to regard investigation as a sort of literary parlour game. I realized today that we’re, after all, hunting a killer whom we in turn intend to kill. It’s a dangerous sport for hunter and hunted alike.”
“Dangerous? You really mean that the person who killed Purvice and Slapper might try to kill you?”
“He shewed on that occasion that he did not rate human life very high, didn’t he? An extra murder was nothing to him when it enabled him to remain unknown. Why should my life mean any more now?”
Mr. Limbrick shrugged his shoulders ostentatiously.
“Are you armed?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said Carolus. “But this man or woman is not the one to give me or anyone else a chance to defend himself. He strikes, as we know, from behind.”
“Then ought you not to return to Newminster and ask for police protection?”
“No,” he said quietly. “I don’t think that I will do that. I think I will continue just as I am, if you will allow me to do so, for another two or three days.”
“Allow you? My dear fellow, it’s a privilege. All I ask is to be the first layman informed of the truth. When you know it.”
“If I know it. If I live to know it.”
“You talk as though you expected to be murdered at any minute. I assure you that this house would not be an easy one to enter. Or to approach, for that matter. The drive gates are locked at night. No vehicle can come within half a mile of the front door unless those gates are broken and I have instructed my gamekeeper to watch them. This may seem a small deterrent but I assure you it is an important one, for modern crimes are not committed unless there is an escape route and a car with the engine running is waiting at hand. Then the house itself is protected. Two Alsatian dogs are loose in it all night and seem to have their own system of patrolling it. I think you can sleep safely and I hope comfortably tonight.”
“Comfortably, I am sure,” smiled Carolus.
When the two men left the dining room they found that Marcia and Jane had arrived. Marcia was noisy and apparently amused to see Carolus here.
“Come out to keep an eye on the farm, I suppose?” She turned to Mr. Limbrick whom she addressed with scarcely credible familiarity. “Oh, Limbo, why the hell have you had the drive gates locked? We had to leave Fidgety Phil in the road and leg it out here.”
Mr. Limbrick smiled in reply to this. The fact that he shewed none of the irascibility of the first afternoon led Carolus to think that his bad temper, like his threatening noticeboards, was largely contrived for defensive purposes and that behind it there might be a very different man. He noticed that Mr. Limbrick was explaining now that he had to take precautions since he was responsible for the security of a private investigator.
“You suspected that this security might be threatened before I told you about this afternoon?” asked Carolus.
“Of course I did. My dear Mr. Deene, I don’t read crime fiction for nothing. I know perfectly well that a private detective with perhaps some special knowledge is always in the greatest danger. I do not, as a matter of fact, take your experience of this afternoon very seriously. But I should not be doing my duty if I did not take precautions.”
“Thank you very much. You seem to have forgotten that I first came here to find a dog which I described then as stolen.”
Speaking of that, said Marcia heartily, what we’ve really come for is Barry. We’ve told the police everything now and I don’t think they’ll say any more about the dog. They seemed far less interested in the whole thing than you were, Mr. Deene.
“That’s good,” replied Carolus vaguely.
Marcia and Jane were still in the house when he went up to bed and Barry the fox terrier was receiving a good deal of attention, Marcia shewing her affection by calling the dog “a hideous little brute” as she briskly stroked its back, Jane saying: “He’s not hideous, are you, my pet? He’s a sweetie.”
The room given to Carolus overlooked the garden. He approached it with some caution and seeing that the curtains and windows were open did not switch on the light but closed the door to the lighted passage, so that he could not be observed from outside. Then, secure in the darkness of the room, he went to the window and looked out at the beautiful night.
Faint intermittent breaths stirred a few leaves in the garden, but otherwise the night was still. Sounds were strangely clarified and disproportionate—a dog he could hear barking now might be a mile away, he thought. An owl hooted persistently and inquisitively from somewhere among the farm buildings. He could smell the night-scented stock in the flower beds below his window. But Carolus found nothing placid in the night. it was part of this feverish English summer, so unexpected in its continuous warmth and brilliance, so precarious, too.
Somewhere out there, perhaps as far away as Newminster, perhaps within a hundred yards of Carolus now, was a man or woman who had murdered and was likely to murder again if he could not be identified and arrested in time. It made the peace about Carolus seems cynical, the sweetness of the English night a sinister parody. Carolus, knowing what he must do tomorrow, was sick at heart.
Suddenly it seemed that a star shot out of its course and swept down the sky. “Stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood, Disasters in the sun,” thought Carolus, and at last pulled the heavy curtains across his window as he switched on the light to undress and go to bed.