At Death’s Door
VISIT TO MR. AND MRS. BAKER
Carolus had no difficulty in dealing with the Corn Laws for the instruction of the Upper Fourth that afternoon. His mind was, to use a hideous neologism, compartmentalized and he could forget the murder of Emily Purvice to recall the—to him—more interesting personality of Sir Robert Peel. But when, later that evening, Rupert Priggley called to take into the Bakers’ home, he soon brought his attention back to the present.
“The boy Baker is repulsive,” explained Rupert in the car. “A late child of elderly parents. Always a mistake, don’t you think? He’s fifteen and his married brother the copper is thirty, and there are two married sisters somewhere. His father’s a wildly pompous old man who thinks Baker, the boy, is the most wonderful thing that ever happened. Actually he’s got a face like a Sealyham terrier and plays chess all the time. Still, you’ll see.”
Carolus nodded as he drove into a region of small houses built between the wars, neat and hideous bits of brickwork with geometrical gardens in front of them. There was a competitive look about these villas and bungalows, as though they had been preparing to be judged by a gardeners’ association. The houses were as tidy as the gardens and seemed all to be newly painted. Television aerials on their roots were thick as trees in a plantation.
“You won’t get a drink,” said Rupert. Strict teetotallers. Cocoa, I’ll bet you.”
They stopped at Kirriemuir, a bungalow as neat and nasty as the rest. A boy of fifteen whom Carolus vaguely recognised as a pupil came to the door.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Good evening, Baker.”
“Dad’s expecting you. Will you come in?”
The front room had an air of unaccustomed occupation and had been carefully arranged. An arm-chair covered in some slippery brown material have been left vacant for Carolus and from its twin arm-chair Mr. Baker had just risen. He was a heavy man with a ponderous head and equally ponderous manner. Mrs. Baker, a small fidgety soul, fussed eternally in the background while her husband discursed.
“I’m glad to welcome you to my little home, Mr. Deene. When my boy told me today that you were interested in certain matters on which I have some information I told him to invite you to come and have a chat. It’s a pleasure to see you.”
“Mervyn was ever so excited at your coming,” said Mrs. Baker.
“Mervyn’s fils, not père,” whispered Rupert. “Absolutely the right name, isn’t it?”
Mr. Baker cleared his throat.
“Now I understand you are seeking certain information about the late Mrs. Purvice,” he said portentously. “May I ask what is your interest in the matter, Mr. Deene?”
“Certainly. I think perhaps the most honest answer would be curiosity.”
“Ah! That’s frank. That’s straight off. But my boy tells me you are interested in such matters from a literary point of view, too. My boy’s got his wits about him, you see. His mind’s not all taken up with his schoolbooks. He’s like me—interested in life. In the great variety of the human species.”
“He’s got a scholarship, you know,” put in Mrs. Baker proudly.
“A competitive scholarship,” said his father. “I hope we may manage to send him to the University later. He’s all for research. I tell him he’ll grow up to make his old father look like an ignoramus.
“He won’t do that,” said Mrs. Baker loyally.
“With the education he’s getting, and going to get I hope, he’ll shew us all up, I expect.”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Baker, unwillingly abandoning a favourite theme. You wanted to know about Mrs. Purvice. I’m not a man to speak ill of my neighbours, Mr. Deene, especially when they’ve Been Taken, but I must say I find it hard to do otherwise of the late Mrs. Purvice. There wasn’t much of the milk of human kindness about her.”
“She was ever so mean,” said Mrs. Baker.
“She wasn’t a woman to inspire confidence,” went on Mr. Baker. “We knew her as a landlord for she owned this as she owned many other houses. In spite of this considerable property she had a few friends. If any. She . . .”
“I understood,” Carolus felt that he must interrupt. “I understood that you knew some specific facts about her.”
“So I do, Mr. Deene. I’m coming to that.” It was clear that he resented interruption. “I’m anxious to give you all the information I possibly can. Not only have I the duty of every citizen to do so but I have a close personal interest in the matter as well. My older son, Geoffrey, was a personal friend of the police constable who was so brutally murdered. So you see I am anxious that no stone should be left unturned. The police, and I include my own son who is investigating the case, have so far not seen fit to ask me any questions, though as you will see I could supply them with vital information. I am going to tell you everything. As my younger son’s teacher you shall be given the benefit of all the knowledge I have.”
“Thank you,” said Carolus warily. “You put a new fireplace in Mrs. Purvice’s back room, I understand?
“I am by calling a master bricklayer,” announced Mr. Baker. “I’m not employed by any one firm but work independently, taking on jobs for firms or private individuals. Mrs. Purvice asked for an estimate. I put in a reasonable one and was given the job. For three days . . .” his voice grew impressive . . . “I worked in the room behind the shop. I saw everyone who entered. I was in a unique position to observe her business.”
“And what did you see?”
“Mr. Deene, there was something very wrong about Emily Purvice. Few indeed of the people who called on her wanted to buy stationery or fancy goods.”
“What did they want?”
“Ah!” said Mr. Baker shaking his head. “What indeed? What, for instance, did a young man like James Drew, a known and convicted criminal . . .”
“Isn’t that rather strong? He’d done a couple of years in Borstal,” said Carolus.
“Isn’t a Borstal institution a prison for boys? He was a thorough-paced criminal. My elder son could tell you more about him, if you wish, for he was instrumental in bringing him to justice. I ask, what did that young man want with Emily Purvice? What made him call on her on the day he was released from prison and remained closeted with her . . .”
“Closeted?” said Rupert, savouring the word.
I speak figuratively, of course. They remained in conversation for half an hour. Explain that!” challenged Mr. Baker.
“Who else?” asked Carolus, trying not to sound impatient.
“Many. Many, and unexpected. Strangers whom I have never seen in the town, one with a large samples bag.”
“Mightn’t he have been a commercial traveller?”
“He might. But again he might not. Other unaccountable people. Women in rich furs. . . .”
“In June?” put in Rupert.
“There were chilly days while I was working there, and in any case I was not speaking literally.”
“And you were not able to overhear any of the conversation, Mr. Baker?”
“Except in one case, no.”
“A minister of religion,” said Mr. Baker unctuously. The Reverend Stephen Colbeck. He has a very loud voice as you may know. I think that Mrs. Purvice tried to persuade him to keep it down but his habit of speaking from the pulpit got the better of him. ‘You shall have it on Tuesday,’ I distinctly heard him say. Now Tuesday was the day before the murder.”
“Well yes. She was killed at some time past midnight so that’s correct. I had thought of it as the day of the murder,” admitted Carolus.
“It may have no significance but at least it poses an interesting question. What was such a person, the Vicar of a large parish, promising to deliver to this woman on the day before she was killed?”
“Ah!” mimicked Rupert. “What indeed?”
“Now, Mother,” said Mr. Baker to reprove this. “How about some of your cocoa?”
“If Mr. Deene . . . perhaps he’d prefer . . .”
“He’ll enjoy it when he tastes it,” promised Mr. Baker complacently.
Mrs. Baker smoothed her dress, fussed with her bag, smiled, took off her glasses and eventually sidled from the room. As the door closed Mr. Baker turned to Carolus.
“Emily Purvice was a wicked old bitch,” he said unexpectedly.
Carolus was so startled by the sudden proof that Mr. Baker was after all human that he almost ceased to dread the cocoa and smiled encouragement to his host.
“I don’t like to think of a decent young chap like Slapper losing his life in investigating her death. She wasn’t worth it. Jack Slapper and his wife have been here to tea several times. Friends of my elder son’s. Nice, well-behaved people I was glad to have in my house. It’s a shame to think of him killed by some young hooligan.”
“What makes you think the murderer was young?” asked Carolus sharply.
“I don’t know. But I keep thinking of James Drew. The sort of young blackguard . . . Ah, here’s Mother with the cocoa. We don’t approve of stimulants in this house, Mr. Deene. Mind you, I don’t want to tell any other man what he should do. But in my house there is no alcohol. My elder son’s altogether different. Not intemperate, mind you. But he tells me that he believes in being able to offer a visitor a glass of ale. He and his friend Slapper would occasionally call at an inn when they were at a distance from the town. A drink offered at a bar sometimes helped him in his investigations. He told me so quite frankly. I said that of course it was his affair. He must conduct his life as he thinks fit. He’s a fine, straight man, Mr. Deene. I make no secret of it, I’m proud of him. Now you try that cup of cocoa.”
Gulping secretly, trying to keep his features from shewing his nausea, Carolus obediently picked up his large cup.
“There’s one other little thing that may be worth mentioning,” said Mr. Baker. “It is that I may have unwittingly supplied the murderer with his weapon.”
“Yes. I had with me while I was working at Number Eighteen, Market Street, a short crowbar. It was a handy little tool. When I returned here on the evening of my last day’s work for Mrs. Purvice I said to Mother that I believed I had managed to leave my favourite little crowbar in Mrs. Purvice’s back room. Didn’t I, Mother?
“I expect so, dear. I don’t remember.”
“Mind you, I don’t know that it was the weapon used. But I’ve heard of nothing else, so I’m just wondering.”
“Did you make any effort to recover it, Mister Baker?”
“To tell you the truth I didn’t. I meant to call in there one day but I never seemed to have the time.”
“You haven’t told your son this? The Detective Constable, I mean? I should have thought he would be interested.”
“I told him that I had some information of vital interest to him and other members of the C.I.D. investigating. But I’m afraid he lacks some of the patience necessary in a good detective. He was inclined to brush aside the information I offered him. Our sons grow up, Mr. Deene, and receive a modern education. Then they begin to think of their parents as behind the times.”
“I’m sure Geoffrey would never think that of his father,” put in Mrs. Baker.
There was a long pause before Mr. Baker continued.
“As a matter of fact, if that was the weapon, poor Jack Slapper was forewarned in a way. My elder son brought him to tea on the Sunday before he was killed. He came with his wife and Geoffery’s wife. Quite a little gathering. They all have a weakness for Mother’s rock cakes, haven’t they, Mother? Here we all were and we decided to sit in the garden for tea. A lovely day, you may remember. Mother is fond of her little joke and twits me about forgetting my tools sometimes. Like the plumber, she says. That afternoon it was I who joked at my own expenses. ‘You would smile,’ I said, ‘if you knew what I have forgotten this time,’ and told them how I had left my favourite little crowbar in Mrs. Purvice’s back room. There was some good-natured laughter, I remember. But if afterwards it was used as the weapon I’m sorry poor Jack Slapper did not take it more seriously.”
Carolus rose but was unprepared for that long delay, beloved in a home like this, between the time at which the guest stands up and that at which he eventually takes himself off.
“You must come again,” said Mrs. Baker.
“And if you want to know anything about young Drew,” said Mr. Baker, “you go and see my son Geoffrey. He saw young Drew at the dance that night. He told me that much. There were several others there who had dealings with Mrs. Purvice. You’d better look him up. He’ll be pleased to help you.”
“Thanks,” said Carolus desperately. “I will. Though the police don’t much like us amateurs,” he added facetiously.
“As for this young man,” continued Mr. Baker with a nod in the direction of Mervyn, who looked sheepish. “Don’t forget the maxim on which you and I were brought up. Spare the rod and spoil the child. If he doesn’t do his lessons properly.”
“Oh Father, you know he does!” said Mrs. Baker, enjoying the joke.
It was another five minutes before Carolus eventually broke away and then it was with the speed and evasiveness of a fast wing three-quarter at last eluding the pack.