Death of Cold
“Wasn’t she heaven?” said Rupert Priggley when they were in the car. “What a survival! And she has told us exactly nothing, I take it?”
“She has cleared away some dead wood,” said Carolus, “but has not added much.”
“I suppose you’re being what is called enigmatic, now. You mean she had added her bit of confirmation to facts you already had, and so tidied up a bit. Would you call her a suspect?”
“I would certainly say that she is capable of murder. I think most thoroughly sentimental people are.”
“But you don’t think she did it?”
“I have no positive suspicion of her. Or of anyone else, for that matter.”
“If the story is true, it must have been the hell of a facer for the Mayor, suddenly receiving a letter from the girl he left behind him. I imagine he could form a pretty good guess of what she had turned into after thirty years with her ‘gentleman-friend’. Who do you suppose that was, by the way? Somebody who wanted a hideously respectable double life?”
“She seemed sure I should know the name.”
“A peer, probably. Any old peer, capable of sailing of saying ‘violets for Violette’. It’s rather nauseating in a way. Perhaps the Mayor knew about it and wisely kept away. Then one morning on his breakfast table poom! it arrived, scented notepaper, purple ink and all. And she’s coming down on Thursday to see him. I bet his stomach turned.”
“You can read it that way,” said Carolus, “but it’s capable of a less kind interpretation.”
“Not a pretty impulse at all, you mean? Not a little impishness, but a cold-blooded, resolute attempt to bleed the old man? Could be. You don’t know what letters she had kept all those years. You don’t even know if there was are a child. All that talk of her ‘little income’ being sufficient for her needs may be nonsense.”
“We don’t know what passed between them on the landing stage except one thing—he told her she was in his Will.”
“Which gives her a motive, I suppose. But how could she do it? I mean, let’s be realistic, sir; how could that bosomy female with the toupee actually drown the Mayor?”
“How could anyone? There was no sign of a struggle on him.”
“I see what you mean. Anyway, I don’t see him committing suicide over Violette. For one thing, you say he had a sense of humour—he must have seen what an astonishing old piece of goods she was. For another, it was after he’d met her that afternoon that he was like a dog with two tails over is grandchild.”
“No. I don’t think he committed suicide over Violette,” said Carolus.
It was past midnight when he reached his comfortable little house in Newminster, after he had taken Rupert Priggley to the ‘Christopher Fry thing’ and dropped him at his home. He was surprised to find his housekeeper, Mrs. Stick, waiting up for him. Something stiff and disapproving in her manner made him guess that there had been developments that evening in connection with the case he was investigating. He knew, only too well, how rigidly Mrs. Stick opposed his interest in crime which neither she nor the usually invisible but frequently quoted Stick thought quite respectable.
“A Dr. Fyrth has been on the ’phone for you,” she said, as though the words sizzled on her tongue.
“Oh yes?” said Carolus heartily. “Jack Fyrth. What did he want?”
“He has telephoned eight times,” said Mrs. Stick viciously. “He says it’s in connection with the murder you are investigating.” Mrs. Stick became slightly pained. “I didn’t know you were investigating another murder, sir,” she said.
“Nor did I. Or not for certain.”
“I hope we’re not going to have every rag-tag and bobtail calling here again,” said Mrs. Stick, “and us not knowing who is a murderer and who’s a detective.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’re likely to have many calls here, Mrs. Stick. This happened at Oldhaven, you know.”
“I sent to Stick this evening, I said if that starts again we shall have to give our notice, whether we want to or not. We never have been mixed up in such things and never shall. I’ve made you some sandwiches and put out the whisky. Dr. Fyrth said whatever time you came in would you call him. It’s urgent. Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Mrs. Stick,” called Carolus and added—“pleasant dreams!” His housekeeper gave him what she called ‘a look’ before going out.
Characteristically he ate a sandwich and had a drink before lifting the ’phone. What ever it was, it could wait another ten minutes, and he was tired and hungry.
He got through almost at once.
“Oh, Carolus. At last. I’ve been trying to get you all the evening.”
“So I hear.”
“A damnable thing has happened. Greta’s awfully upset about it. Little Miss Pepys, you remember? Her governess. She has disappeared.”
Carolus made a sound expressing interest.
“Three days ago. She took her usual walk in the afternoon, came home to tea, then about six o’clock told her landlady that she was going out again.”
“Unusual for her, I take it?”
“Unprecedented. The only time she ever went out in the evening was to St. Winifred’s church on Sundays.”
“Did she give any explanation?”
“None. That’s what worried Mrs. Kemp, the landlady. I gather that the two were on friendly terms. ‘You’d have thought she’d have told me,’ Mrs. Kemp says. She just put on her hat and coat and announced that she was going out for a little while. She would not be long. Mrs. Kemp could, in her own words, have been knocked down with a feather.”
“Then she did not return. Mrs. Kemp waited till midnight; then, as she puts it, nipped round to the police station. But nothing has been seen or heard of Miss Pepys since.”
“When did you first hear?”
“This evening. When I got in. Mrs. Kemp had ’phoned Greta. It seems that the poor little woman has no relatives, and the landlady felt she ought to tell someone. She knew Greta, of course. Do you think it can be connected with the other thing, Carolus?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Oh hell! Greta will be fearfully upset. Can’t you do anything?”
“I will go down to Oldhaven tomorrow.”
“Yes . . . but . . . Carolus, she can’t have been . . .”
“Don’t start thinking the worst. There are a hundred things that can have happened.”
“She may have simply gone away. She may have decided to go into hiding.”
“But why, man, why?”
“I can’t tell you that, yet. It’s possible, too, but she is being kept in hiding. Anyway, lots of people disappear.”
“Yes, but not people like this. Her life was as regular as clockwork. She hadn’t an enemy in the world, Greta says.”
“I don’t suppose she had. At least, that she knew of.”
“It’s dammed worrying, Carolus. What shall I tell Greta?”
“Tell her I’m going down at once. I can’t say or do any more than that.”
“All right. Let us know what you find out, won’t you?”
“I will. Good night, Jack.”
But with himself he was far less merciful. I knew it, he said; I ought to have called on her. It would be a lesson to him for ever. However many tiresome interviews that were in a case, however many people he had to hear enlarging their egos, not one must ever be neglected. If he had heard from the little governess whatever information she had, it might have made no difference at all, but, on the other hand, it might—there was no blinking the fact—it might have saved her life. For in spite of his reassurances to Jack Fyrth, Carolus saw only too plainly the possibility of another murder here. The disappearance of Miss Pepys at this time was not coincidence.
Then, as he sat there in his friendly study among his pleasant possessions, Carolus suddenly felt a cold shock of fear and horror. It was as though someone had come into the room, someone truly evil and menacing. Murder ceased to be the core of an academic problem in his mind and became a reality, a beastly cruel and ruthless thing which had struck one human being and perhaps two. Somewhere among the people he had met and questioned in this case, the silly, the comic, the pretentious, the ordinary-seeming people, was one who had deliberately planned to take a man’s life without being detected and had done so. All very well to be amused at the quirks and oddities of these people—among them was a murderer, and one of the worst kind calculating, and cold-blooded.
Moreover, he thought, the man or woman who had caused the death of Wirral would not stop at killing the little ex-governess if, as it seemed, she knew too much. There were other possible explanations of her disappearance, but he had not much faith in them. Someone diabolically evil was at work here, and the fact that he had not sensed that evil in his conversations with any of the various suspects was lack of sensitivity on his part. It must be there.
Then Carolus saw the whole thing as a fight, even a fight to the death, between himself and one antagonist. He felt very lonely and unarmed, he did not underestimate his enemy. But he felt, too, desperately resolute. He would discover this murderer and bring him or her to justice. His strange talent was a responsibility—decent people were counting on him here. He had, perhaps, already let them down. He would do everything in his power to make that good. Fortunately tomorrow was a Saturday and he could go down to Oldhaven without difficulty, but in any case, he thought, he would have had to go. Nothing was more vital now than his prompt elucidation of this case.
The dawn changed nothing in his mind, and it went down to the school in a rather surly mood, anxious to get through the morning and leave for Oldhaven. That afternoon was to take place the first Rugger match of the term, and he heard it discussed everywhere.
“Ah, Deene,” said the headmaster as he walked beside him on the way to chapel. “You are coming to watch us defeat St. Gundulf’s, this afternoon, I make no doubt?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Carolus.
Mr. Gorringer eyed him curiously.
“A pity indeed. You will miss a good match. But, then, you have your private interests, have you not?”
“I have,” said Carolus.
“Another magnum opus on the way, perhaps?”
“No. I’m not writing anything.”
“Ttt-tt. But, then, it is not for us to question the workings of inspiration. You have the Senior Fifth this morning, I think? There is a boy called Priggley in that class who should be watched. A disturbingly sophisticated boy. Unfortunate circumstances in his home.”
“I know him,” Carolus admitted.
“Pray discourage any precocity you notice,” adjured the headmaster.
Carolus needed no warning of that sort, at any rate today. He was not in a mood for Rupert Priggley’s digressions, or anyone else’s, and kept his class with their noses to the grindstone of events in nineteenth-century Europe.
In the break Rupert Priggley came up to him.
“I suppose you’re going down to Oldhaven today?” he said. “It’s a fearful nuisance that I’ve got to play in this match.”
“Insufferable little brute! You ought to be pleased that you’ve been picked.”
“Picked? I am unfortunately the best fly-half they’ve had for years. There’s no escape from matches for me, even when I know you’re going to have a delirious time sleuthing.”
“Am I?” said Carolus. “I have my doubts about that.”