A Louse for the Hangman
The second chore Carolus had set himself that morning was scarcely more attractive than the interview with Mr. Flinch; it was to have another talk with Tramper. He drove up to the Duke of Suffolk and happened to meet Major Stour, the proprietor, as he was crossing the hall.
“Good morning,” said Stour. “I was hoping you would come in. That fellow we were talking about . . .”
“Yes. S’traordinary thing’s happened. Fellow’s got some money. Don’t ask me how. Must have been soon after you saw him on Saturday, because that same evening he came to my office, asked for his bill and paid it in notes. S’traordinary, wasn’t it?”
“I suppose he must receive money sometimes.”
“Fellow’s like a dog with two tails. Buying drinks in the bar on Saturday night.”
“Is he there now?”
“Fellow’s always there. Can’t get him out of the bar.”
“I want a word with him.”
“You’ll find he’s pretty impossible just now. Strutting about like a peacock.”
“I think I may have to deflate him a little.”
“Hope so. Fellow gets on my nerves.”
It was true that Tramper seemed to lean across the bar with a new bravado. He flicked the ash from his cigarette and said softly to Carolus, “Come to ask me again why I went to see Ratchett?”
Carolus said, “No.”
“I know now.”
“I said, I know why you went to see Ratchett. Give me a Scotch-and-soda, please,” Carolus added, turning to the barmaid. She returned from contemplating the sunlit journeys of clouds to pour his drink.
Carolus could feel the uneasiness of Tramper beside him.
“Oh, you do, do you?”
Carolus ignored this.
“Nice day,” he said to the barmaid.
“Not bad,” she answered to the wall above Carolus’s head.
“And what do you think it was I went to see him about, since you’re so clever?”
“A bit breezy,” went on Carolus to the barmaid, “but it’s grand to have some sunlight.”
“Yeh-es,” sang the barmaid to the ceiling.
“Come on,” said Tramper. “What was my object in seeing Ratchett?”
“Blackmail,” said Carolus. “I think I’ll have another Scotch.”
“What d’you mean, blackmail? You can be had up for using words like that. That’s slander, you know.”
“A bit more soda, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“What is the story, anyway?”
“Oh, the story. That was a not very ingenious affair about ptomaine poisoning.”
“It was true!” said Tramper. “I can shew you the proof. Only they called it botulism.”
Carolus looked suddenly interested.
“Did they now? Suppose you tell me the whole story?”
“Do you really want to reason? Let’s say it will certainly do you no harm and it might possibly help you.”
“I live at Eastbourne,” said Tramper sulkily, “or rather I did till a few weeks ago, when my wife died.”
“How many weeks?”
“Hell, I don’t know. About five. We had a part of a house furnished. The wife worked for an estate agent.”
“What did you do?”
“Oh, various things. Bit of photography at one time, only I got into trouble over that. I still can’t see why, because I used to sell a lot of photos to ‘body beautiful’ publications. If it wasn’t wrong for them to publish the photographs, why was it wrong for me to take them? That’s all I want to know.”
“Lots of things. Went racing for awhile, only my nerves wouldn’t stand it. Of course when the shortages were worse there was always plenty to do. Nylons, and that. But just lately things have been very quiet with me. If it hadn’t been for the wife, I don’t know.”
“Well, only a few weeks at Brixton. Nothing, really. That was over a car.”
“A driving offence?”
“Not exactly. It’s a long story. Anyhow, there we were, the wife and I. Ticking over. Enough for a drink now and again. A decent place to kip. Nothing much to complain of. Till this night about four or five weeks ago when she had this ham loaf.”
“Which ham loaf?”
“Archer and Buck’s. Bought it at the shop on the corner. Well, we used to have mostly pinned stuff. You do when you work late.”
“Did you work late?”
“Well, naturally we wanted a few drinks in the evening. Used to go to a pub called the Golden Hammer and have one or two. Then at closing time we’d come back and eat what there was.”
“And what was there that night?”
“I told you, ham loaf.”
“We had to have some vegetables. Spinach and beetroot, we had.”
“Of course it was. You don’t think the wife was going to start cooking things at that time of night, do you?”
“She didn’t even heat the spinach?”
“No. As a matter of fact the gas for the cooker had given out and we didn’t happen to have any silver coins.”
“The spinach and the beetroot were not Archer and Buck’s products, of course. They don’t sell tinned vegetables.”
“No. But it was the ham loaf that did it.”
“How do you know?”
“Stands to reason. Meat. Meat’s the first thing to go off in a tin.”
“You’re quite wrong there. I haven’t studied the figures on this. Or rather the only ones available—those in United States. Food-poisoning from tinned foods is extremely rare—in fact from the commercial producers there has not been a case since 1925. What cases there have been worth from home-tinned foods, and French beans have produced more than any other.”
“I’m sure it was the ham loaf, anyway.”
“Why? Did you notice anything about it?”
“To tell the truth, old man, we’d both Had a Few. I don’t think we’d have noticed it if it had been rotten. I didn’t eat much that evening. I wasn’t feeling all that well. I’d mixed ’em a bit, I think. But I was there when the wife had her supper—the three little tins—and I’m sure it was the ham loaf.”
“Weren’t the empty tins examined?”
“How could they be? Nothing happened to breakfast time, and the dustbins had been emptied then.”
“What were the first symptoms?”
“The wife felt dreadful. First she complained of seeing double, and she said she couldn’t swallow. She couldn’t speak properly, then couldn’t get her breath. Dreadful. I went for the doctor and he came round and knew at once what it was. He gave her something, it wasn’t much good. She was taken to hospital, and died next day.”
“I wonder why you weren’t affected.”
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t actually eat anything at all that night. Didn’t feel like it. I was a bit under the weather and only wanted to get to bed.”
“Would you mind telling me the doctor’s name?”
“I don’t know why you’re so interested in all this.”
“I am investigating the murder of Ratchett. Have a drink?”
Perhaps for the first time in many years, Tramper did not instantly answer that question.
“Murder? What’s that to do with me? I’m telling you what happened to my wife.”
“So far as I’m concerned you’re in the picture. You spent half an hour with Ratchett two days before the murder and you went up to Highcastle Manor an hour or two before he was shot. If your explanation of these turns out to be true it should help to clear you.”
“Of course it’s true. The doctor’s name was Boncourt. He’ll tell you. He signed the death certificate, didn’t he? Respiratory paralysis due to botulism, whatever that means. I know it did for the wife. She’s had it and is pushing up daisies. Yes, I will have another drink. Gin-and-pep. Cheerily ho! ”
“You haven’t yet told me how this brought you here.”
“Obvious, isn’t it? Here was I deprived of my wife with no life insurance on her. I only had to start an action against Archer and Buck to be paid enough damages to put me on easy street for the rest of my life. Stands to reason. What firm could stand the publicity? Why do you never see cases like that in the paper? Because they’re settled out of court, that’s why.”
“So you went to a solicitor?”
“Couldn’t afford it, I’ll man. You know what solicitors are. I’ve had quite a bit to do with them. Mind you, I may have to, in the end. But I thought I’d give them a chance first.”
“But you haven’t even any real evidence that the ham loaf was responsible. What about the firms who tinned the beetroot and spinach?”
Tramper looked uncomfortable.
“Well, if you want to know, old man, between you and me I’m having a go at them as well. Just in case. One of the three of them did for my wife, and just because we can’t be absolutely sure which—though I’m still pretty certain it was the ham loaf—I don’t see why one should get off scot-free.”
“But you chose Archer and Buck for your closest attention. Why didn’t you write to the firm?”
“Well, it seemed like providence that old Penge should live here, right on my doorstep.”
An odd way of putting it, thought Carolus, remembering Highcastle Manor.
“So you came straight here?”
“After I’d settled things up in Eastbourne. Not that the wife had anything much. As a matter of fact I got what there was on Saturday night, from her few bits of jewellery and that. Yes, I moved here and went to see Ratchett. You see, my business, this advertisement lark, I can do from anywhere almost, so I thought I’d work from here while we were getting things settled.”
“Did Ratchett give you any encouragement?”
“I couldn’t make out what he meant. He said it was no affair of his or old Penge’s, and if I thought I had any claim it should be made to the firm. Then he seemed to think it over and told me to hang around for a few days while he saw Penge to find out whether he would do anything. That’s why I stayed here. And that’s why I went up to the house that afternoon.”
“Mind you, it’s awkward, now that Ratchett’s been bumped off.”
“Yes. I wonder the police haven’t been to see you.”
“They have. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? I know Scudd of old. Now, are you going to have a drink with me? No? I shall have just one more. Gin-and-pep, please, Pam. ”
“Who are you calling Pam?”
“You, dear. Well, cheerily ho!”
Carolus left them in order to telephone to Highcastle Manor and excuse himself from luncheon. He had seen the menu when Chilham brought it in at breakfast for Lord Penge’s approval, and he really did not think he could face hors d’œuvres, red mullet, eggs in cream, veal cutlets, chocolate pudding and a large array of varieties of cheese. He decided instead to take a chance on Major Stour’s offering of lentil soup, shepherd’s pie and treacle tart. By any ordinary standards this would be quite inedible, but after a few days at Highcastle Manor the prospect was less intimidating.
He had decided to do, or appear to do, what Eustace had begged him, and make a small test of the security arrangements. It had occurred to him that he was seeing the household too much from within, as if he belonged to it, and he wanted to get a glimpse from the outside. It would be interesting to see what these people did in his absence: whether they took advantage of it for any purpose, whether they ceased to play their parts. He realized that he had no hope of seeing more than some indicative flash, of been lucky enough to catch sight of someone coming or going, of finding out some small thing that would help his inquiries, but it was worth a trial, anyway.
After lunch he went to the largest garage in the town, drove his car in and saw the proprietor privately. He asked whether it would be possible for him to hire a motor-cycle for a few hours. The garage itself had not one, but the proprietor suggested to Carolus that he should ask Bert, one of the mechanics who came from a distance each day and had a Matchless. Bert was sent for and after deep and seemingly anxious thought agreed to lend his bike to Carolus. He also, on inquiry, produced a set of overalls and a pair of goggles, with which Carolus equipped himself.
He decided that he would make a circuit of the park, keeping as near to its boundaries as possible. He had written a Matchless motor-cycle during the war and found it, as motorcycles go, smooth and comfortable. He set off from the village with the sensation of being the Invisible Man, so totally unrecognizable had the bike and get-up and goggles made him.
He went slowly past the single lodge at the West entrance, remembering that it was occupied by Spotter’s wife, described by Piggott as a ‘bag’, a ‘lazy cow’, a ‘big slut’, yet reputed to have been once on terms with Lord Penge of a kind to make her husband jealous. As he passed he saw a woman in the doorway of the lodge who might answer to some at least of Piggott’s unflattering epithets. She was buxom, blowsy and idle, and she had the remains of good looks.
Carolus turned his motor-cycle and stopped in the road right in front of the lodge. He put the cycle on its stand and stooped down as if to examine something in the engine. After a few moments the woman called across in an indolent voice:
“What’s the matter? Won’t it go?”
“Got to adjust it,” said Carolus.
“I don’t like these things,” observed Mrs. Spotter.
“They’re very useful.”
“I wouldn’t get on the back of one for anything.”
“You ought to try.”
“Not me. Besides, my husband will be home.”
“I did once. Years ago, before I was married. Went down to Brighton races. I shall never forget it. Laugh? Only I hadn’t got the weight I have now. D’you live around here?”
“I pass through pretty often.”
“I’m fed up with it. Too quiet. I like somewhere with a bit of life.”
“Don’t we all?”
“I bet you do. She laughed lazily. “What is there to do here? Nothing.”
“Haven’t you got television?”
“Yes, but it’s only on certain hours. Here, did you see last night?”
“No. I’m afraid I didn’t.”
“It was a scream.”
Carolus knew that the correct reply was, ‘Go on, what happened?’ but he couldn’t make it.
“I’d ask you in for a minute it wasn’t for my husband. You never know when he’s coming home.”
“I must get on, anyway.”
Just then Carolus saw a car coming down the drive from Highcastle Manor and recognized Lady Penge’s Jaguar. He dropped his motor-cycle from the stand and said good-bye to Mrs. Spotter.
“Ta, ta,” she said. “Look after yourself.”
He followed the Jaguar at a distance, and when the car stopped at a crossroads outside the beach he passed it, let his engine quieten down, then turned and rode back. He was in time to see Lady Penge climbing back into the driving seat. Just beside the point at which she had stopped the car there was a letter-box. He did not trouble to follow the Jaguar any more after that.
When he returned to the park he drove straight to the East gate and found it closed. Instead of Mrs. Carker emerging, a policeman came and asked him his business at the Manor. Carolus gave some feeble story about an estimate for decorating the kitchen quarters which elicited some fairly shrewd questioning from the constable. He was then refused admittance.
Not even bothering to do the same thing at the West gate he rode into the town and returned the motor-cycle to its owner, who looked somewhat relieved. He reached the Manor in the early evening and went up to his room. He now had a useful quantity of information which needed co-ordinating and considering and he spent a couple of hours at his desk. The main problem was rapidly dissolving.