At Death’s Door
BEHIND THE SHOP
“What do you expect to find? Cloos?” asked Rupert as they walked towards Number Eighteen.
“Stranger things have happened,” retorted Carolus.
The shop door was of glass but strings have been stretched across it on the inside from which a few dusty and out-of-date periodicals were hanging. The lock was a single mortice one and the key turned readily. Before looking round the room Carolus turned back to the glass door he had closed and pulling aside the periodicals peered up to the street light which at night would shine on the entrance. Then he tried the key in the lock from this side and found that it turned as easily as from outside.
The shop itself was almost unendurably stuffing and still after the noise of the street had been excluded by the shutting of the door. There was something eerie about this dingy place, lit only by the light filtering through the dirty street windows. Still nothing had been disturbed and big ‘fancy goods’ seemed horribly tawdry now, whole shop might have been left untouched not for a few days but for a couple of decades.
“Gives you the creeps,” commented Rupert. “I don’t wonder the woman was murdered in a place like this. She must have been a sort of old spider sitting in the middle of her web waiting for the flies to come in.”
“It’s not a pleasant place,” admitted Carolus, “and I don’t see what’s to be gained by examining anything here. The police will have taken any interesting papers there may have been. Let’s look at the room at the back.”
Carolus opened the glass-panelled door as Constable Slapper had done a few minutes before his death. The two of them entered the room in which the dead bodies had been found.
The carpet was up for it had been sent to the cleaners and the stains had been removed from the furniture and walls. Yet, thought Carolus, there was still a smell of death in that room. Rupert felt it too for he spoke in a quiet awed voice.
“It is a chamber of horrors, isn’t it?”
There was only one window and it was about four feet long and three wide. There were two divisions in this of six pains beach and once, long ago, it may have been opened up the sash cord hung broken now and the window-frames had been fixed in position by rusty nails. The dirt on the panes was undisturbed. One piece of dirty brown curtain hung there. It had shrunk and faded and failed to cover its own half of the window. Carolus peered through the panes.
“That, I imagine, is the yard at the back of the Pollings’ shop,” he said.
“Must be,” said Rupert. “I suppose you’re going to ask me to go round there?”
“Of course I am. Make yourself useful. Run and ask the Pollings if they’ll let you into the yard to make faces at me through the window. And see if the yard has a way out at the back.”
Rupert went, but it was six or seven minutes before Carolus saw him emerge from the Pollings’ back door and approach the sealed window. When he returned he told Carolus that the outside plan of the premises was much as they had supposed. The Pollings had a small yard with a high wall dividing it from the premises which backed on to market Street. There might be a way in from there but it would be difficult.
“They didn’t want to let me in,” said Rupert. “Quite positive, they were. Very different from the nice obliging people we met yesterday. As soon as they knew I wanted to go into their yard and look through the window, they ‘turned nasty’.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“I suppose they could have seen the whole thing through that window.”
“Could have, yes. Perhaps did.”
“And then be as chatty about it as the woman was yesterday? I doubt it.”
Carolus continued to make his unhurried examination of the room. It was furnished with one Victorian arm-chair upholstered in horsehair and with two upright chairs. There was a small table against the wall and a gas-ring was in the fireplace on which a kettle stood. Some tea things were on the table.
Carolus examined the photograph and plan of the room supplied by Moore.
This is where Purvice’s body was found,” he said and roughly sketched an outline with his foot. “Slapper had fallen across it, so he must have been about here if he was hit from behind. The murderer simply stood behind these,” he added, pulling aside two old plush curtains hung from a high shelf by heavy brass rings. Behind them was an uninviting-looking collection of clothes, evidently Mrs. Purvice’s garments for out-of-doors.
“As simple as that,” commented Rupert.
“Well, I don’t see where else he could have hidden himself, do you?”
“No. If he hid at all.”
“That was our working hypothesis, I think. And it fits. He could not possibly have got out of the room without Slapper seeing him, of course, and it would have been no good staying where he was. Slapper would obviously have had a look round before going to report what he had found and the first thing he would do was pull aside these curtains. The murderer’s one chance was to kill him or knock him out. He probably didn’t know or care which. If he was using that crowbar it would be hard anyway to control the force of his blow.”
“Yes. It fits. Rather revolting, though, isn’t it? And what a mise en scène.
“A beastly room. You can almost feel the evil in it. That old woman scheming away here with her ledgers or what not, then at last her death. Moore thinks the first blow was struck over in that corner. There was a good deal of blood there, it seems.”
They stood still and silent for a moment while Carolus contemplated the ugly little scene. The only thing almost startlingly new if it was a fireplace built with a profusion of small bricks and called in the building trade a Devon fireplace. Nothing could be uglier in itself or more inappropriate to the room.
“What on earth did she have that put in for?” wondered Carolus. “It’s not only out of place. It’s out of character.”
“It’s very Pa Baker,” observed Rupert.
“Perhaps he talked her into it. Let’s look upstairs.”
The house was on three floors with two rooms to each. On the first they found Mrs. Purvice’s sitting-room over the shop and a kitchen over the back room.
The sitting-room kept them for a few moments staring at its Victorian wonders. Everything was duplicated. The mantelpiece had a black marble clock in the centre flanked by hideous and identical vases. There were four chairs arranged two buy two. On one side of the fireplace was a large photograph of Mrs. Purvice, on the other side one of the late Mr. Purvice identically framed. There were two pieces of inverted ornamented drainpipe holding pampas grass, one on each side of the windows. Even the mats were in pairs; everything was balanced.
Oh God! exclaimed Carolus. “What immortal hand or eye could frame by fearful symmetry?”
They continue to climb. The front room on the top floor had evidently being used as a bedroom by Emily Purvice. With its worn Axminster carpet and metal bed, its Chinaware and a quantity of surplus stock from the ‘fancy goods’ downstairs it was as depressing as the rest of the house. At the back there was a lavatory while another room incredibly contained a bath.
“But look at it,” said Rupert.
It was certainly a period piece and its rusted geyser looked as though it had not been used for years. There was a strong smell of dogs in the room.
“Since she seems not to have used this for anything else it was excellently suited to her purpose of keeping the puppy shut up.”
Carolus thought for a minute and went out to the diminutive landing and looked up. A skylight was overhead.
“I thought so,” he said. “Give me a heave up.”
In a few moments he had opened the heavy frame and was scrambling through, apparently oblivious of the effects of dust and soot on his beautiful grey suit. He looked down to Rupert.
“If I don’t return,” he said, smiling, “I’ll meet you in the Old Gateway café in half an hour.”
“I can’t think what you’re doing,” rejoined Rupert. “It’s all much too Holmes and Watson. You ought to have your deerstalker and magnifying glass. But I’ll order tea for you. And how, after this.
Carolus was perfectly happy as he emerged in the open air. He could not be seen from the street for he was behind the rest of the shop and could rest on a little coping wall that ran along the back of the building. But he soon started making for the corresponding skylight of the house next door. When he reached it he squatted down and raised it an inch or two, listening.
Then, seeming satisfied, he boldly raised the frame, rested it back on its hinges and peered into the house below.
Here too was a landing, different only from the one next door in that the walls had been recently distempered and instead of the stale and deathly smell of shut-in humanity, the smell of bedrooms in which windows are never opened, there rose to him the healthier if none the less pungent smell of dogs.
With a grin that was rather boyish and mischievous, Carolus lowered himself through the skylight and dropped to the floor of the landing below. Almost immediately there was a thumping and scurry on the stairs and the Great Dane appeared. With an effort Carolus remembered her name.
“Margaretta,” he whispered.
The large creature came fumbling up to him, depths of love in her eyes for all men and all living things, as harmless as she was huge.
Carolus caught a glimpse of a clean modern bathroom corresponding to the damp mausoleum next door and then began cautiously to descend the stairs. The Great Dane pushed past him and noisily led the way.
On the floor below the doors were shut but from the shop he could hear the rather harsh deep voice of Marcia and the sickly sweet enunciation of Jane. They were sharing a joke.
The Great Dane descended no farther and Carolus boldly went down the last flight of steps. It seemed that the girls had heard him because as he opened the shop door he saw them both gaping towards it in alarm and incredulity.
“I just dropped in,” he explained.
Marcia was the first to recover.
“What the devil do you mean by it? Where have you come from?”
“The roof,” explained Carolus. “I do apologize. Breaking and entering, I suppose. But I did want to see how easy it was.”
“How easy what was?”
“Entering this house from the one next door. And vice versa, of course. With a bit of rope, the nearest suggestion of a rope-ladder to help climb up from the landing, it’s a gift. It would be almost as easy with a dog in one’s arms.”
“This is really the most frightful cheek, Mr. Deene.”
“I know it is. I do apologize again. But the temptation was almost irresistible, you know. And the other skylight had been opened quite recently from the outside. So won’t you tell me now just what happened?”
“I shall complain to the police about your breaking into our house.”
“I don’t think you will, somehow. But even if you want to do that, wouldn’t you like to give me the few details I want before you do so? After all, if you have nothing to hide beyond your taking back your dog by this rather unorthodox method, you don’t need to care who knows the details.”
“You are talking rubbish,” cut in Jane icily. “We have nothing to say in this connections at all.”
“But you have, you know. Otherwise you would have told me about the dog days ago.”
“Can you give me any valid reason why we should tell you anything at all, Mr. Deene? You seem to consider yourself in some way privileged to ask questions, but that is no reason why we should answer them.”
“None whatever,” agreed Carolus. “Except that when one has nothing to hide it’s easier to answer than to evade a question.”
Suddenly Marcia, he was crimson with fury, went closer to Carolus.
“Get out!” she said, pointing towards the door. “Get out of here, you inquisitive . . . you spy!”
“Steady, Marty,” said Jane. “No need to lash out, old girl.” She turned to Carolus.
“I really do think it would be better if you would go,” she said. “Marty’s apt to be violent when she’s roused and you have been rather provoking, haven’t you?”
“Of course,” he said. “I apologize again.”
He turned to the shop door and the little bell over it tinkled inopportunely as he opened it. He came out into the street followed by a hoarse shout from Marcia.
“Don’t come back!” she bellowed. “Don’t dare to come back here or I’ll put a riding-crop across your shoulders!”
Rupert, who was waiting on the pavement, smiled.
“She would, too,” he said.
“I thought I told you to order tea?” said Carolus.
“Bags of time. I wanted to watch your exit. Have you finished with that couple?”
“Until we find the dog, yes. And you can be useful over that. Find out where they took the thing. Put your loathsome little schoolfriends onto it. It must be somewhere not far away.”
“There are times, sir, when I think you ought to have been a Scoutmaster. What do you think I am? Leader of the Elephant Patrol? Or a hoodlum on Clapham Common? I’ve got no gang to set working on your problems.”
“But I think you could find the answer,” he said, and began to munch an éclair. “What’s this?” he said disgustedly. “Am I being infected by your horrible schoolboy appetites?”
“Dormant,” said Rupert. “Dormant since you were at Winchester. Or wherever you were.”
Carolus was amused to notice again that the only occasion on which Rupert’s airy and sophisticated manner left him was when he was confronted by the food he liked. Then he became a normal schoolboy munching cake.
“Come on,” he said. “Tell us about it.”
Carolus should his head.
“Two humiliating,” he said, “but it does occur to me that Slapper at least might well have been killed by a woman. I can’t believe that the murderer meant to kill Slapper. It was only necessary to knock him out. A man could have regulated the strength of his blow. A woman would have brought the crowbar down with all her strength to make sure.
“Yes. I like that,” said Rupert. “Marcia, you think? Well, well, I still plump for Jane.”