At Death’s Door
The press obliged. If Carolus had seen the papers next morning he would have learnt that his condition was critical and that police were waiting at his bedside as it was believed that he had information which would enable them to identify his assailant. The town hummed with this, a good deal of wild rumour was added and speculation on the identity of the murderer reached fever point.
The more irresponsible among the daily newspapers found great scope in the situation and some of their headlines were succulent, others so startling that Newminster began to feel a little of the horror attributed to it. “Streets of Whispers” headed one lurid account, a journalist finding that among the town’s inhabitants “none knew who would be suspected next”. “Will He Strike Again?” asked another. Fortunately for Carolus’s plan all seemed eager to mention that he was in Newminster Hospital in a critical condition.
But another Newminster matter occupied some space. On the day on which Carolus first went fishing, Dick Purvice appeared before the Magistrates on a charge of larceny. He was given Legal Aid and a shrewd young lawyer appeared for him who did not have the usual chat with the prosecution lawyer. To the dismay of the latter an entirely different case was now presented.
Dick Purvice, it seemed, did not, as he had told the police, break into his mother’s shop that night, he was actually sitting with her, quite amicably, in the back room when Mr. Colbeck called with his hundred pounds. There was no unfriendliness between Dick Purvice and his mother, the court learnt now, and when Mr. Colbeck had gone she gave her son the banknotes. “Everything will be yours one day,” she said, “so you may as well have this now.” He gladly accepted the money, thanked her and left the shop before half-past twelve. It was not therefore surprising that he later spent one of the numbered notes in South End—they were his rightful property.
All that the prosecution could advance against this was the signed statement which had been obtained from Dick Purvice himself. This his lawyer dealt with briskly. It had been made to police specification, it appeared, under threats of a charge of murder. The magistrates, knowing only too well from past experience how statements were obtained by the police, accepted this and refused to commit Dick Purvice on the evidence. He was released and had not been heard of since.
There were other matters, of more localized comment. A Mrs. Millen from Poplar appeared and called Mr. Titterley, the solicitor who had acted for Mrs. Purvice in some matters. This Mrs. Millen was later to be found in a corner of the saloon at the Stag and freely explained her grievances.
“When my poor brother was poisoned by Emily Purvice who’s had her deserts now,” she said, “he left a nice little sum of money which ought to have been for me and I’ve come down to see what can be done about it. I hear there isn’t a Will so all her money will go to the son who was more than likely was the one who did for her, but what about my brother’s money that she got out of him? Oughtn’t that to be for me?”
She shocked some of the listeners when Mr. Polling came in, looking particularly sad.
“Hello, artful!” she greeted him. “None of your larks tonight, now! I know you! All gloom and misery till you’ve had one or two, then Knees Up Mother Brown if I’m not careful.”
Somebody pointed out that she must be making a mistake for Mr. Polling was known to be a very quiet gentleman.
“Mistake? Not on your life! Am I, Mr. Polling? They haven’t seen you as I have! What you going to have? That’s right.
“I was sorry to hear about this schoolmaster fellow being shot at,” Mrs. Millen went on. “Came to see me in London, he did. Seemed a nice young fellow. He was trying to find out who done for Emily Purvice. I told him straight away he didn’t have to look no further than the sun, but he wouldn’t have that. Wanted to know all about her past. Why anyone should bother I don’t know. Good riddance is what I say. As for the copper”—her face darkened—“I don’t care how many of them are out of the way.”
This brought protest from the audience.
“No, I don’t,” she repeated. “I never liked them and I never will.”
Meanwhile, up at Newminster Hospital, the first twenty-four hours spent by Carolus at death’s door, as it was popularly said, were finishing. His presence caused some embarrassment to the staff but none whatever to a majestic being called, in awe and wonder by all, Matron. Few in fact pronounced the word without metaphorically inclining the head. Matron was not to be embarrassed by the presence in a private ward of a shot detective or by anything under the sun. She moved through the corridors with the majesty of an ancient goddess, as though some carved medusa, some sculpted Juno, of more than life size, and been vitalized and dressed in spotless uniform. It was difficult to know whether doctors or nurses feared her most.
She made quick work of anyone who tried to see or obtain news of Carolus.
“Reporters?” she repeated incredulously when they told her of one attempted invasion. She might have been Queen Victoria learning that Mr. Gladstone had called unbidden. She walked out to the entrance hall and gave one look at the tough boys of Fleet Street.
“Shoo!” she said, or was reported afterwards to have said. In a moment the hall was empty.
Mr. Colbeck called and refused to leave till he had seen Carolus. Obstinate, flushed, appearing rather fierce because of his capillary growths, he stood his ground until Matron sailed out like a swan.
“Yes?” she asked.
With this one monosyllable she had quelled the hospital committee before now, reducing its chairman, the Bishop of the diocese, to a stuttering schoolboy, Mr. Colbeck managed one retort.
“I must see Mr. Deene,” he said.
“Impossible,” was all Matron deigned to reply. The interview was over and Mr. Colbeck allowed himself to be led to the gates.
Out at Pear Tree Farm Mr. Limbrick sat at breakfast reading a newspaper account of the attempt on Carolus. Usually uncommunicative in the early morning today he gave Ann some of his views.
“This means we should have the police out here today,” he said with what appeared to be a gleeful smile. “I shall be questioned at last. Well, I flatter myself I’m prepared for a police interrogation. I have read enough of them. You, my dear, will do no more than refer them to me. I hope that is understood?”
“It all accords admirably with the best precedents. I must own that I did not take seriously enough our friend’s account of a mysterious watcher from the copse. But at least I anticipated some attempt on him. I was not unprepared.”
A step was audible on the gravel outside and Mr. Limbrick looked out over his newspaper. Suddenly his face clouded and flushed and in a moment he had become the irate blusterer whom Carolus had first met.
“Who the devil is this, marching up to my front door in overalls?” he shouted. “I will not have mechanics hanging round this place. Tell the fellow. . . . No. I’ll go myself.”
He stamped out to confront Jimmy Drew.
“What the devil do you want? Can’t you read?”
“Come for the car,” said Jimmy.”
“The car? The motor car? Don’t you know I won’t have such a thing on my ground? Bedlam and they stink of petrol. This is a farm, not a blacksmith’s shop. You take yourself off before I let the dogs loose on you.”
“Mr. Deene’s car,” said Jimmy, sulkily but imperturbably. “Orders to take it back to Evers’s Garage.”
“You have, have you? Whose orders? What do you mean, orders? Are you trying to give orders to me? If Mr. Deene brought a car here it was without my knowledge or consent.”
“Can’t help that. Got to take it back.”
“Ann! What the devil is this? This oaf is gibbering to me about a motor car.”
“Mr. Deene’s,” explained Ann.
“Be off with you!” shouted Mr. Limbrick to Jimmy. “Take any such rolling stock off my land and be off! I won’t have my house disturbed with this nonsense. Have the gates opened, Ann. Get rid of the thing. You know I detest the sight of these contrivances.”
A few minutes later the Bentley went quietly down the lane between the overlapping growths of cow-parsley. When it reached the main road it did not turn left towards Newminster. It turned right—in the direction of the coast.
When Mr. Gorringer read of the attack on Carolus and his critical condition, he decided to call on the only one of his Governing body who lived in the town—the Reverend Stephen Colbeck.
“Ah, Vicar,” he said advancing across the threadbare Brussels carpet. “I wanted a word with you.”
“I should like a word with you, headmaster.”
As both the men conducted their affairs by a series of ‘words’ with one person or another, this mutual desire was not extraordinary in them now.
“It’s about my senior history master, Carolus Deene,” said Mr. Gorringer. “It has reached my ears that he was meddling in police matters when he was shot at. I need scarcely say . . .” The headmaster rarely needed scarcely to say. “I need scarcely say that it puts me in and impossible position as his headmaster.”
“Why?” asked Mr. Colbeck, suddenly, unexpectedly and quite devastatingly.
“Why? But surely you must see . . . the scandal . . . the parents . . . the good name of the Queen’s School. . . .”
“In the newspaper accounts I have read, he is referred to only as ‘an assistant master at a local school’.”
“A local school! Our foundation . . . it intolerable. Vulgar sensationalism! I’ve come to see you . . . Something must be done. We cannot have the school distracted. . . .”
“Mr. Gorringer, there have been two very ugly murders in the town. Mr. Deene, as I see it, was doing no more than the duty of a good citizen in using his very remarkable talents to discover who may be guilty of them.” Mr. Colbeck might have been in his pulpit and this plainly discomfited the headmaster.
“You amaze me, Vicar. I expected your support. The good name of the school . . . Masters shot . . . boys involved. . . .”
Mr. Colbeck was not moved. His periods began to roll clamorously.”
“Let us stick to the singular, headmaster. One master. One boy. Surely no one can choose whether or not an attempt is to be made on his life? Anyone may be involved in a case of this kind. Anyone. The most innocent party. If you had chanced to be seen walking down Market Street after midnight on that occasion you might be involved yourself.”
Mr. Gorringer rose.
“I never walk down Market Street after midnight,” he announced. “I am at a loss to understand your attitude, Vicar. An assistant master . . . every rag in Fleet Street blazoning his name . . . the parents will be outraged!”
The headmaster remembered the extraordinary suggestion by Carolus that Mr. Colbeck was involved as a suspect. It was becoming less extraordinary to him now.
“I would point out to you, Mr. Gorringer, that I am a parent and I’m very far from outraged. Indeed I am grateful to Mr. Deene for his perceptiveness. I only hope he will recover, so that he may reveal the whole truth in this tragic matter.”
The headmaster snorted and wished Mr. Colbeck good morning. His great years, as he walked to the door, stood out in blazing red relief.
Mr. Colbeck noticed that colour.
“Constipation,” he thought.
The headmaster had taken only a few steps down the road when he was accosted by the least welcome of possible people to be encountered in Newminster, George Baker, the master bricklayer. Since his son had won a scholarship to the Queen’s School, Mr. Baker was one of the headmaster’s parents and had shewn on previous occasions that he meant to take every advantage of the fact. The headmaster’s “Ah, Mr. Baker,” was flat and short, with none of the suggestions of surprise and pleasure which usually informed it.
Mr. Baker, however, was not to be hurried.
“I’m very glad of this opportunity,” he announced ponderously. “I wanted to express my sympathy with you and the school in the unfortunate circumstances connected with Mr. Deene. Now the news is better and we know that he is likely to recover we can see what a loss to us all his death would have been.”
“Just so,” said the headmaster. “I’m afraid that I am rather late for . . .”
“I was only saying to mother last night how lucky the Queen’s School is in Mr. Deene. We also agreed that he is lucky in the Queen’s School. You came in for quite a share of our modest approval, headmaster, in that you discovered and appointed a man like that. Yes, we spoke highly of you. Your ears must have burned last night.”
Those massive organs on each side of Mr. Gorringer’s head looked as though they might burst into flames now.
“Mr. Baker, I must run . . .”
“If anything had happened to Mr. Deene,” went on Mr. Baker, “it would have been a loss not only to the school but the cause of Right. Although I may seem to criticize my own son I must say that in this brutal murder Mr. Deene has shewn far greater insight and patience than the police.”
“Past eleven! Really I must . . .”
“I am not a man to indulge in rhapsody and flattering, headmaster, but I venture to think . . .”
“Late!” shouted Mr. Gorringer a trifle hysterically. “Must go. Late.”
He left the most difficult of his parents with mouth open to complete his sentence. It was not the headmaster’s lucky day.
Meanwhile in the bow window over ‘Marcia’s Pet Stores’ its two proprietors sat watching the street. This was a favourite resort of theirs after shop hours and with a large box of chocolates between them they could remain for a long time comfortably criticizing passers-by.
Suddenly Marcia gave a low pitched “halloo!” and pointed to the pavement.
“It can’t be!” she said.
“It is!” retorted Jane.
“Oh golly, look at her!” Marcia cried.
“She’s making for here,” Jane noticed
“What on earth can she want?”
“She told Deene she was coming down to see us.”
“Do you think we ought to let it in?” Marcia asked.
“Why not? I’m not afraid of anything what you’re there, Marty.”
“All right. I’ll go down and open.”
Jane followed so that they both stood in the shop when Bugs Fitchley made her entry.
“Hullo, you two!” she greeted them.
Marcia and Jane welcomed her in a slightly subdued way.
“How’s tricks?” asked Miss Fitchley. “Been giving you a bad time, I hear. Suspects, eh?”
“Oh that,” said Marcia.
“Bad business. Sorry you were involved.”
“We weren’t, really,” said Jane. “Only about Barry, our fox terrier.”
“Ruddy shame. Pair of gals trying to make a go of a business having the police in. Dam’ sorry when I heard. Told Deene I should come down and see you.”
“Have you been questioned by the police?” asked Marcia.
“I thought perhaps as you knew Mrs. Purvice . . .”
“Partly what I came to see you about. You’re the only ones to know that. You and Deene. Got to keep me out of this.
Marcia and Jane stared at Miss Fitchley rather curiously.
“Come up to our room,” said Marcia at last. “We can talk there.”
Their shoes clattered on the uncarpeted stairs.