Death of Cold
When Mr. Gorringer, the headmaster of Queen’s school, Newminster, wanted to see one of his staff he had two ways of effecting the interview, according to his reasons for requiring it. If it was some small matter to be settled by ‘a word’ with the victim he would call forcefully but surely across the quadrangle—“Ah, Deene!” or “Ah, Hollingbourne!” But if it were some more formal occasion on which Mr. Gorringer wanted to ‘point out’, ‘bring to the notice’, ‘insist on a change’ or ‘require an explanation’, he would take up his place behind the large writing-table in his study and stretch out a resolute finger to an electric bell-push. This summoned the school porter.
On the Tuesday after the visit of Carolus too Oldhaven, the headmaster did precisely this.
Muggeridge, the porter, was an aggrieved individual who wore an archaic uniform designed by the headmaster to give dignity to his office. It consisted of a silk hat with gold braid and a dark blue frock-coat with silver buttons. When he had first appeared in this garb, soon after Mr. Gorringer had been appointed, there was a great deal of what the headmaster called ‘unseemliness’ from the boys, and Muggeridge have never become quite reconciled to his costume. He had, two, a tired and resentful way of addressing Mr. Gorringer which irritated the headmaster.
Today, for instance, instead of presenting himself smartly and saying, “You rang, sir” in a cheerful, willing voice, he half entered the headmaster’s door and said “Yes? ”
Mr. Gorringer privately decided that he must find a new school porter whose manner conformed to the period of his uniform.
“Find Mr. Deene,” said the headmaster sharply.
“He’s having his dinner,” said Muggeridge resentfully. “Same as I was.”
“I did not ask what you were doing. Be so good as to find Mr. Deene as soon as he returns to the school and ask him to come and see me.”
Muggeridge withdrew, and Mr. Gorringer stirred in his chair, his large ears red with anger or constipation or possibly both. When Carolus appeared there was no affable “Ah, Deene,” but a grim request to him to be seated. Carolus waited while the headmaster deliberately read and signed a report which, as both men new, had been kept on the desk till Carolus’s arrival for this very purpose.
Mr. Gorringer looked up.
“Mr. Deene,” he began solemnly. “It is not my habit to inquire into the activities of my staff out of school hours, provided these bring no discredit on the good name of the school. Mr. Hollingbourne, as you know, is engaged in poultry-farming on quite a large scale, I understand, while Mr. Beardley deals in antiques, using the house which the school has provided for him as a show-room for his choicer pieces of furniture. I make no demur. I am a broad-minded man. I have never wished to be carping or critical. But you, Mr. Deene, have put me in an intolerable situation. You force me to speak frankly. I have been astonished, nay shocked to hear that you had again become involved in murder. This is you perfectly well know, I cannot for a moment countenance. Poultry and antiques are one thing—murder is quite another.”
“Obviously,” Carolus could not resist retorting.
Mr. Gorringer ignored this. It was plain that he had decided what he wished to say and would not be deflected from it.
“On a previous occasion when you thrust yourself on the police—who, I cannot help feeling, were entirely adequate to deal with the matter without your aid—you brought us all into ridicule and notoriety by making yourself the centre of two incidents described by the Press as attempts on your life. It became known that the Senior History Master of the Queen’s School, Newminster, had been dabbling in detection and had nearly met his deserts. Paragraphs even appeared in the national Press. I hoped at the time I had shewn you how much this pained me. I did not think it necessary to remonstrate with you, but strove to indicate by my manner the displeasure I felt.”
“I thought it was a bout of dyspepsia,” said Carolus
“I felt chagrin and disappointment that a member of my staff should have become embroiled in a matter so sordid. But it seems that I failed to shew you this, for I can scarcely believe that you would again have allowed yourself to be entangled in crime if you hadn’t realized your headmaster’s sentiments.”
There came to Carolus during this tirade a swift and disturbing vision of the dead body of Miss Pepys still lying, undiscovered except by him, in the locked bathing-hut. What, he wondered, would Mr. Gorringer think if he knew of Carolus’s action, or failure to act, in that matter? What would he say if he knew of the plans which Carolus had for Wednesday?
“When I was first told, by the parents of a boy related to one of the persons involved in the events at Oldhaven, that you actually spent your holiday poking and prying into the unfortunate suicide of a respected citizen, I thought my ears must be betraying me. You had given me as your reason for visiting a resort so little suited to your station is a member of my staff the fact that the local repertory company was presenting a series of the plays by late George Bernard Shaw. I refused to believe that the demise of the Mayor had beeen responsible for your presence in the place.”
“It wasn’t. I was there when it happened.”
Mr. Gorringer raised his hand.
“You will have an opportunity to excuse yourself in a moment, Mr. Deene. Pray allow me to conclude my remarks. My natural incredulity, however, was overridden. I now have it, on unimpeachable authority, that you have again spent the week-end at Oldhaven, nosing and hobnobbing with undesirables, and a boy from the school, whose conduct had already been the subject of my anxiety expressed to you, was down there with you. I am frankly horrified. That you should yourself shew a morbid interest in the misdemeanours of barmaids in salesmen of dubious literature is bad enough. That you should have allowed the mind of a pupil to be corrupted by such things is surely inexcusable. Quite inexcusable.”
Mr. Gorringer now sat in silence, and Carolus sensed that his great ears were out like feelers, eager for his answer.
He spoke cheerfully, with a casual politeness not well suited to Mr. Gorringer’s rhetoric.
“I am sorry, headmaster,” he said. “You’re certainly right about Priggley. I did not ask him to come down, but I ought to have sent him back at once. As a part of my investigation that day took me to church I was tempted to watch the effects of a sermon on that tiresomely sophisticated youth. I should not, however, have let him come with me afterwards.”
Mr. Gorringer gravely nodded, as though in acknowledgement of that much conceded.
“But as for the rest of it, I must be as frank you. I am not going to see a man murdered, cruelly and deliberately, and allow his killer to escape when I can prevent it.”
“Surely the local detective force . . .”
“The local detective force could not spare time from their work on what they call public modality.”
“I’m sorry, headmaster, but, as I have told you, I was on holiday in Oldhaven when this happened. I was appealed to by a young doctor and his wife, relatives of the dead man, to discover the truth. I should have felt it was a mean and cowardly betrayal not to have done so.”
“But your position . . .”
“This was a matter of life and death, headmaster. No consideration of any kind would have justified me in funking the issue. That I was right has been proved by the fact that there has been a second murder.”
Carolus watched Mr. Gorringer struggling with himself. Finally his curiosity triumphed.
“Who?” he whispered.
“A harmless little woman who knew too much. I understand your predicament, but there are things more important to me even than my post in the school. I think in the circumstances, since you feel so strongly about it, my best course will be to res—”
It was clear that the matter was going farther than Mr. Gorringer had intended.
“There is no need for any precipitate decision, Mr. Deene,” he said hurriedly. “I have the liveliest appreciation of your gifts. I have asked you here because I must ensure that the good name of the Queen’s School shall not be jeopardized by any thoughtless action.”
“I know. But if that good name is so sensitive it may well be. I am going down to Oldhaven tomorrow, when I hope to clear up this whole beastly case.”
“If that can be done discreetly . . .”
“It’s very doubtful. All my evidence against the murderer is circumstantial. If I don’t succeed in trapping the creature in a certain spot, my work will have gone for nothing.”
“You mean you intend once more to invite an attack on your person.”
“It’s the only way. And this time there will be no nonsense about it. This one’s a killer, cold and ruthless.”
“But, Mr. Deene, this may mean a repetition of the unwelcome publicity of the last occasion.”
“It may. I’m sorry, headmaster.”
Mr. Gorringer frowned.
“Is there no way in which it can be avoided?”
“I hardly know what to say.”
“Let me again offer you my resig—”
“No, no. That is no solution. Is there nothing that I can say which will dissuade you?”
“I am afraid not.”
“At least I have done my duty,” said Mr. Gorringer. “I have made my attitude clear and shewn you the full consequences of what you propose to do. I forbid you to go, Mr. Deene. Formally and with all the authority of my position I forbid you to go. I also appeal to you as a man of experience and as a friend to abandon this folly and allow the police to do the work for which they are paid.”
“I’m sorry, headmaster.”
“I can say no more. I shall have to consult the governors. My resources are at an end. It is clear that I have no influence with you.”
“In this matter, no one has.”
“I unwillingly concede that. I shall say no more. Perhaps you would like a cigarette.”
Carolus stared incredulously at Mr. Gorringer. This was the first time since the headmaster’s arrival at the school nine years ago that he had been known to offer anyone a cigarette. Carolus accepted.
“I wonder whether you would care to join me in a glass of port wine. You’re not due in your classroom for another half-hour, I think.”
Carolus was only just able to control himself. This was not only unprecedented, it was unbelievable.
“I . . . I shall be delighted,” he gasped.
Mr. Gorringer went to a cupboard and brought out a decanter with an inch of red liquor in it which looked as though it might have been there for a month or more. He poured a little into each of two dusty glasses. Carolus raised his.
Then the headmaster produced his greatest surprise. Looking Carolus straight in the eyes he spoke solemnly.
“Cheerio,” he said.
After a moment’s silence, in which Carolus gazed wonderingly at his chief, the headmaster spoke again.
“I was afraid it would be useless,” he said. “But my duty was clear. I hope that nothing I have said has hurt your feelings. The thing had to be put clearly and with emphasis.”
“I should not wish there to be any ill-feeling between us.”
Carolus sipped some of the dark syrup in his glass and said, “Of course not.”
The headmaster drank too, apparently with enjoyment. Then he leaned across the table to Carolus.
“Tell me, Deene,” he said. “Who murdered the Mayor of Oldhaven?”
Carolus smiled, but did not answer.
“Of course,” said Mr. Gorringer irritably. “Your lips are sealed. But you can tell me one thing. Were both murders the work of one person?”
“I can tell you that, said Carolus. Yes. They were.”