A Louse for the Hangman
Carolus had an extraordinary sensitiveness to atmosphere, mood and even coming events. As some people are warned by headache of a thunderstorm approaching, Carolus had frequently been able to sense evil and danger before they had manifested themselves. From the moment he entered Highcastle Manor that afternoon he was aware of an unnatural tension.
The first person he saw was the one he would have thought least likely to shew something of nerves or mental strain: the footman Piggott. But as he took Carolus’s coat he said in a low, anxious voice, “Can I have a word with you?”
“Yes. What is it, Piggott?”
“Been given the sack,” said Piggott. “I had a blazing row with the old man today.”
“Nothing, really. You know how it is. Everyone is on edge. Honestly, it was as though he was trying to pick on me. It started because I was a bit late answering his bell. Then he said something about my never been round when I’m wanted, and I said I didn’t think that was right. He said I was always over in Gribbley’s flat, and I asked when I had been there at a time when I ought to be on duty. So he said on the afternoon Ratchett was murdered and Chilham had opened the door to a man who had turned out to be a suspect. I don’t know, it went from one thing to another, and I ended by losing my temper and saying I hoped this letter-writer would get him, the old so and so.”
“Did anyone hear that?”
“Yes, Chilham did. I said it loud enough, anyway. I thought he’d have me out of the house straight away, but no, he said a month’s notice.”
They were interrupted by the entrance of Chilham, and Carolus made his way to the fireside.
He was having his tea there when he was joined by Hermione.
“I do hate it when Mother’s away,” she observed. “There was no need for her to go, though I suppose I don’t blame her, with all this panic going on.”
“I understood your cousin . . .”
“Oh yes. Cara rang up today. It’s quite true, but she could manage without mother. After all, this will be her fifth.”
Somewhere in the house a telephone was ringing, and in a moment Chilham came to tell Hermione that she was wanted on the ’phone. Even in that very commonplace announcement Carolus sensed something unusual. Chilham spoke in his usual quiet voice, but he looked at Hermione as he spoke as though she would gather something from his words, as perhaps indeed she did. She jumped up and without turning to Carolus walked away.
Chilham turned to Carolus.
“His Lordship it would like to see you, sir.”
“Again?” said Carolus.
“He just asked me if you had come in, and when I told him you had, he said, ‘Ask him if he would mind coming in to see me.’ ”
Carolus found Penge placidly reading Trollope. He put his book down and invited Carolus to the arm-chair beside him.
“I have gathered from you, Mr. Deene, that either you have a solution to this mystery or you are very near one.”
“I have one.”
“You are confident that it is correct?”
“Do you not think you should at once reveal it?”
“I intend to do so tomorrow. For a reason which you will understand then, I prefer to wait another twenty-four hours.”
“During which time the danger to me will continue?”
“I do not believe that anyone will attack you in the house, Lord Penge. If I did so, I should not hesitate to explain the case as I see it.”
“I see. I certainly shall not go out of the house, so if you are correct I have nothing to worry about. But what about yourself, Mr. Deene? Isn’t it possible that the murderer realizes that you have discovered his identity and might think that his only safety lay in killing you before you revealed it?”
“He would be very unlucky. I have taken the obvious precaution of posting my notes on the case.”
“But he wouldn’t know that.”
“It is a chance one must take. My reason for waiting another day is an important one.”
“I don’t like it, Mr. Deene. I accept your assurance that I am in no danger in my house tonight, but remember that one poor fellow has already been killed in my place. I do not want to think that anything could happen to you while you are staying here. How would it be if I let it be known to my family and staff that you had already written the details of the case? It could be arranged that the news should reach the village in an hour, if your suspect is a local person.”
“If you wish. I’m really not very worried.”
“I won’t ask you questions, but of course I feel very much more than curiosity. Our whole family life is at stake.”
“I’m sorry to have you have to keep you in suspense. I hope you will believe that it is necessary. By the way, do you know who are Michael Ratchett’s executors?”
“No. I think he had a London solicitor, who will have the Will. I could probably find out if it’s important.”
“It’s just that I find he had a strong-box in a local bank. That will have to be opened by the executors. The manager was very sticky about it. Even your name didn’t move him.”
“Oh. I’ll try to find out. Anything else?”
“I don’t think so. When do you expect Lady Penge to return?”
“I hope, since you will be able to clear this thing up for us tomorrow, she will be able to come back then, at least for a time.”
It was still light when Carolus left Lord Penge and went up to his room. He pushed up one of the heavy windows, as though he found the atmosphere of the house unbearable. It was a chilly evening, and although no rain was falling there was a clouded sky.
Glancing over the landscape, which had become familiar to him in these few days, Carolus noticed something unusual. Smoke was rising from one of the chimneys in the stables. He remembered hearing that Spotter had formerly occupied rooms there, but they certainly have not had a fire in them during his stay. He decided to walk across. In a case like this anything unprecedented might be interesting.
Spotter was nowhere to be seen, so Carolus sat on a truss of hay and waited. He could see a little staircase leading upwards and presumed this went to the living-rooms. After a while the door at the head of this staircase began to open very slowly. Carolus realized that he would not be immediately visible to anyone who might emerge.
It was a couple of minutes before he saw that this was Spotter. The little man must have stood in the doorway listening before he began to descend. Doubtless he had seen the approach of Carolus from the window.
Spotter gave a start when he saw Carolus, but recovered himself to save good evening.
“I didn’t know you lived above the stables,” said Carolus chattily.
“I don’t do nothing of the sort.”
“Isn’t that the way to the living-rooms?”
“Not for anyone to live there, it isn’t. They’re shut up and no one don’t go near them, not even none of the family.”
“I see. I thought perhaps as a fire had been lit . . .”
“Can’t leave nowhere to rot and damp. Never do not to light a bit of a fire now and again.”
“Are the rooms furnished?”
“Not to say furnished, they’re not. Not what anyone means by furnished. Not likely to be, neither.”
There was a ring from the telephone. The irregular sound told Carolus that it was a call from the house, not an outside call.
“Yes, Miss,” said Spotter. Carolus thought it was the first affirmative he had heard from the groom. The other word was indicative, too, for it could only be addressed to Hermione. “I will. Yes. Certainly. Quite sure. Thank you, Miss.”
He looked at Carolus rather furtively.
“Not wanting nothing in the way of a horse tomorrow, were you, sir?”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“No more than what I have, you haven’t,” said Potter meaningfully. But his good night to Carolus was civil enough.
When he returned to the house, Carolus was so alive to the atmosphere of dark menace that he did not want to leave the hall, which was the centre and hub of the whole house. He asked for a drink and went once again to the fireside. It was nearly seven o’clock.
He amused himself as he looked into the flames by guessing the whereabouts and occupation of all the persons who seemed connected with the case if they were conforming to their stated habits. Lord Penge was still in the library, and Chilham, having just taken his sherry and medicine down, had returned to Mrs. Murdoe’s room for another hour’s bezique before serving cocktails at eight. Piggott would be over in Gribbley’s flat, where the two friends were having a drink and doubtless discussing Piggott’s sudden dismissal. Hermione was grooming her dogs and Lady Penge, presumably, over at Godalming with her cousin’s daughter. Lockyer and Ronald were in the schoolroom, and Spotter, whom Carolus had just left in the stables, might still be there or hurrying home to his wife. Mrs. Carker was at home ‘saying to herself’, and the cook was preparing dinner. The Worsdykes were in that comfortable living-room at Eastbourne enjoying a—doubtless—efficiently cooked evening meal. Tramper would surely have taken up his position at the bar and be leering at Pam. But Mrs. Spotter—what might Mrs. Potter not be doing? And the German girl with Wilpey? And the other German girl? These were conjectures it would probably be kinder not to make.
That left only Eustace. About Eustace, Carolus could not even make a guess. And he knew that none of the others were certainties.
A clock struck seven: the hour at which Ratchett was supposed to have been shot; the hour of Hermione’s vision at the window.
As he remembered this, Hermione came hurriedly from the morning-room. Seeing Carolus, she stopped.
“I’ve seen it again,” she said. “The face at the window.”
Carolus made no answer and did not move.
“Aren’t you going to do something? I said I’ve seen that face again staring in at the morning-room window!”
“That’s a matter for the police, not for me.”
Hermione snatched up the telephone.
“Chilham! Send anyone you can to fetch both the plain-clothes men who are on duty. There’s something I must report to them at once. As quickly as possible, please.”
Carolus stood up slowly.
“You’re very calm about it!” said Hermione resentfully.
“Yes,” said Carolus. “I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the stables.”
“No . . .”
It was an in voluntary sound—scarcely more than the letter n. It was plain that Hermione was in a state of great distress.
Carolus did not wait for the two policeman to be found, but walked across to the stables. The clocks had not yet been put forward for summer-time and this evening seemed rather dark. He did not, however, switch on the light in the stable, but moved into the corner where he had sat that afternoon waiting for Spotter. He could watch the half-door easily—it was light enough outside to recognize anyone.
Yet when at last a man’s head and shoulders were framed in the half-door Carolus did not recognise him at all; indeed, he was certain he had never seen him before. The man did not wait to look round or switch on the light; he hurried across to the little staircase and passed into the room at its head.
Carolus returned to the house. He did not join the group in the hall, but went straight up to his room. Looking across to the stables again, he could see no light in the upper windows, but decided that they probably had black-out curtains over them.
He delayed going down to the hall as long as possible, but at eight-fifteen felt bound to go. He found Lord Penge, Eustace, Ronald and Lockyer. It was not until five minutes later that Hermione joined them.
Then a thing happened which might be thought trivial, yet in that place, at that time, from the person involved, seemed highly dramatic and disturbing. Chilham handed Hermione a drink, and as she took it, Chilham dropped his tray. There was nothing on it but an empty glass, and Chilham recovered it swiftly, yet the little incident seemed to startle them all. Not, Carolus guessed, for thirty years had such a thing been known to happen to Chilham.
Dinner was eaten with a subdued and tense air, but it was eaten. Only when the port had duly circulated did Lord Penge rise and ask Lockyer to go with him to the library. Ronald went to bed, leaving Carolus and Eustace alone together.
“I understand you’ve solved it,” said Eustace.
“Then why on earth can’t you tell us? What’s the idea of keeping us all in anxiety till tomorrow?”
“I think you will be glad afterwards that I did so. It’s not just a piece of mystification.”
“My father says you tell him he’s perfectly safe tonight.”
“That is not what I said. I said I did not believe anyone would attack him in the house.”
“But if he were to go outside?”
“You surely would not let him.”
“He’s most unlikely to wish to do so. Since this thing started he has not left the house at night.”
Eustace looked up sharply and stared at Carolus for a moment but did not reply to this. Instead he said thoughtfully, “I wonder why you draw this distinction between in the house and outside. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone to break in, you know.”
“With a police patrol on all night? I think so.”
“At least you don’t seem to be very worried about it.”
Carolus turned and looked straight at Eustace.
“Don’t be deceived by appearances,” he said. “I am deeply worried. I have been put in a situation which for any man would be difficult, and for me is almost intolerable. I have had to make a decision affecting a number of human lives, and all I have to guide me is the sense of justice of a very ordinary man. I may be doing wrong and I may be blinding myself to certain dangers. But whatever the truth, I can do no more. I have made my decision for good or ill, and I must abide by it. I’m sorry if I seem cryptic. I promise you I long to get rid of the knowledge I have as much as you long to share it. Now, if you don’t mind, I want to see Detective Inspector Scudd. I understand he’s coming up to see your father at ten o’clock.”
“Yes. I’ll ask Chilham.”
When the butler appeared he said that Scudd was expected at any moment.
“Could I see him as soon as it comes?” asked Carolus. “I’m anxious to get to bed.”
Five minutes later Carolus faced Scudd in the hall.
“Look here, Inspector, I know you resent my being here, and I can quite understand that an amateur is a pain in the neck to the police. But there’s something we really ought to discuss.”
“I can think of nothing, Mr. Deene. As you say, we have no use for amateurs.”
“It just happens, Inspector, that I have chanced on something which is valuable to us both. I want to make a bargain with you.”
“That would be out of the question. This is not the sort of affair in which one can make bargains.”
“At least let me put it to you. Suppose I tell you that I know of certain papers which would be of the greatest use to you in clearing up this case . . .”
“It would be your duty to inform us immediately.”
“It would. But I’m not going to do my duty unless you’ll play. I’m not asking for anything unreasonable.”
“What is it you want?”
“First that you undertake to keep this conversation between us a secret, at least until tomorrow, whichever way you decide to act.”
“I can’t even do that. It’s my duty to tell the men I’m working with that you claim to have this knowledge.”
“All right. But you will tell no one else? No one connected with the case?”
“Certainly not. I shouldn’t think of doing so in any case.”
“Secondly—and this is what you won’t like—if I give you the information now, tell you exactly where these papers are and they turn out to be relevant, will you allow me to examine them?”
“How can I, Mr. Deene? It would be against all rules.”
“That I know. But the situation is a most unusual one. Without my information you’ll never know of these papers and never see them. I assure you they are vital.”
“You would have to reveal the matter, Mr. Deene.”
“I assure you that nothing would make me do so. I should deny all knowledge of the thing and swear that this conversation had never taken place. Now look; I tell you that the papers are some distance away and that I must lead you to the place. We can go in my car or yours, whichever you like. On the way back we stop for a moment, I look through the papers, and that is all. It’s a fair bargain, I think.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Scudd, who seemed to be weakening a little, “is why when you know where these papers are you don’t just go and get them for yourself and say nothing to me about it. ”
“You will understand that when we clinch our bargain.”
“All right, Mr. Deene. You win.”
“I have your word?”
“Then we go tomorrow morning?”
“It’s a bet. But if this is some wild-goose chase of yours with nothing at the end of it . . .”
“You would only have lost an hour’s time. Good night, Inspector. See you in the morning.”