A Louse for the Hangman
Alone in his room Carolus felt no relief from the oppression and foreboding of the evening. The great house seemed unnaturally still, but when he opened his window he saw it was a night of darkness and rain, though the wind seemed to have dropped. He stayed at the window for some time, but could see very little of his surroundings, and the night was almost noiseless.
Anyone watching Carolus might have thought him what in one sense he was, a schoolmaster on holiday staying with an hospitable family and now going to bed after a rather tiring evening. No one would have guessed that he had spent days in murky investigation into a baffling murder and found the truth, or that this was the eve of its revelation. Tomorrow some human being would be shewn as a murderer, tomorrow the balloon would go up. Yet Carolus stared into the darkness, then returned to his bedside with what appeared to be a calm, even a cheerful deliberation.
But sleep was impossible. He picked up the book he had brought up from the library, Cousen’s Architectural Antiquities of Western India, and was soon back among the rock-cut shrines and monasteries, the bizarre and beautiful temples, the lavish and sensuous carving of a civilization which would make today’s look like a tawdry fair-ground. He had the gift of leaving the present and returning to the past in more than imagination, in spirit and mind entirely. He wanted to forget the people in the case he had been investigating, forget all he had observed of their behaviour and characters, forget the crime itself and the tension that had gripped them all tonight. The hours began to pass, and Carolus scarcely left his contemplation of frescoes and carved pillars and dancing gods and conquered devils.
Midnight came and still the night was silent. Carolus wondered whether he could sleep a little. Then he heard a sound which, for effect, should have been that of a ghost, so sad and memorable a ghost would it have suggested. It was the heart-breaking sound of a woman crying as she walked, crying with such abandonment that she did not care heard. The passage was heavily carpeted, but her progress could be followed by the sound of her crying. She came from the top of the stairs, passed the door of Carolus’s room and went out of earshot without opening a door. Carolus looked at his watch. It was half-past twelve.
Carolus did not return to the activities of Western India, but he did not sleep. He lay on his back with his head in his hands staring at the ceiling.
That was why, perhaps, he heard the footsteps, for they could scarcely have awakened him. His watch told him that it was exactly five to one. The footsteps passed under his window: the jumbled footsteps of two walkers who are side by side but not in step. They crunched on the gravel. Whoever the passers-by might be, they were neither dawdling nor hurrying.
Carolus went to the window and looked down, but the night was too dark. He could not even see anyone moving below. There was only the sound of those footsteps on the wet gravel, fading away in the direction of the other wing of the house.
Carolus made no attempt to follow. Indeed, it was with something that sounded like a sigh of relief that he settled at last in bed and extinguished his light.
Not a quarter of an hour later he was disturbed more peremptorily by a knock at his door. Without hesitation he called, “Come in.”
Ronald entered. He was fully dressed and looked confused and unhappy.
“May I speak to you for a minute?”
“I don’t know why I thought I had better tell you this. I told you about . . . the other thing. It somehow seemed this was something you ought to know.”
“What’s it about?”
“Lockyer. He has disappeared.”
“Well, gone. Gone away. But so suddenly that it’s odd.”
“When was this?”
“About a quarter of an hour ago. He came to my room and said that he was going away for a few days. His bags were all packed.”
“Did he say why?”
“No. He seemed upset about something. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, ‘Nothing’, but I could see there was. He looked . . . I thought he looked scared.”
“How was he going?”
“He has a car.”
“Where does he keep it?”
“In the garage here.”
“Do you know if he has taken it?”
“Yes. I can see the garages from my window, and I saw his lights as he drove away. I doubt if you would hear it from here.”
“Does your father know?”
“I asked Lockyer that. He said, ‘Of course’. Then I asked him about my studies, and he looked at me as though he didn’t know what I was talking about. Then he said, ‘Oh hell, just go on with everything’. He seemed in an itch to get away.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
“Not a word. I asked him, too. He said, ‘Oh, just away’. It is rather extraordinary, isn’t it? This was after midnight. Where could he be going at this time?”
“Perhaps,” said Carolus dubiously, “he spoke the truth to you. He wasn’t being funny. Perhaps he was just going away without any clear plan.”
“He usually never moves without a plan. Besides, I think he did know where he was going and it was somewhere out my father was sending him, because just before he left he remembered that he hadn’t got ‘the key of the house’ and went back to Father for it. ”
“That does look as though he had a destination in mind, I must say. Anyway, thanks for telling me. I think you ought to run along and get some sleep now.”
“All right, Mr. Deene,” said Ronald cheerfully. “See you in the morning.”
At last Carolus slept.
He was awakened in the morning by Chilham with his morning tea. It was eight o’clock, and there was some light in the room.
“His Lordship is absent, sir,” said Chilham.
Carolus sat up in bed.
“Absent? What do you mean? Out of his room? Out of the house?”
“Out of the house, sir. His bed has not been slept in. His overcoat is missing.”
At that moment Eustace hurried in.
“Where’s my father?” he almost shouted at Carolus. His hair was tumbled and he looked as though he had not slept.
“I understand from Chilham that he is out of the house.”
Carolus said this quietly, but with enough meaning to remind Eustace of what he had said last night.
Eustace stood still for a moment, staring at Carolus, then bolted from the room.
Chilham had remained there.
“Mr. Lockyer also is absent.”
“I knew that, Chilham. He apparently went off in his car at about one o’clock. Tell me, where is Piggott?”
“Piggott took the truck out unusually early this morning. He has not yet returned.”
“Can you ’phone the farm from which she brings supplies, Chilham?”
“Will you please do so once and let me know the results? Ask what time Piggott called.”
Carolus began to dress rapidly, even sacrificing to speed one of the primary pleasures of his day, this morning bath. When Jill returned, Carolus was fully carelessly dressed.
“A very extraordinary thing, sir. Piggott has not called at the farm this morning. He left here over an hour ago.”
“Has that ever happened before?”
“Never, sir. There have been mornings when the family was away when he has not had to go over, or at any rate so early, but never once has he set out and not brought back the supplies. It is most extraordinary. Piggott is a very reliable man.”
“Lord Penge sacked him yesterday.”
“Are you quite sure? His Lordship thought a great deal of Piggott.”
“Piggott told me they had a violent scene and he was sacked.”
“Most surprising. I scarcely know what to think about all this. ”
“Tell me another thing, Chilham. Has Lord Penge ever left the house like this without notice?”
“Not since I have been here, sir.”
“Will you get the valet to examine his clothes and things? Let me know if anything is missing. I have to run down to the lodge for a minute to make an inquiry. Tell me when I come back.”
Carolus hurried across to the garage for his car, which Gribbley had put out in the yard. He did not see the chauffeur as he drove away. In a few minutes he was at Mrs. Carker’s door.
“Tell me,” he said before her volubility could be released, “did anyone drive out through these gates during the night.”
“Well, there it is, they’ve all got their keys of the gates, so I’m not to know one way or the other. But I did happen to see Mr. Lockyer going off. Somewhere around one o’clock I should say it was, though I didn’t look at the clock.”
“You saw Lockyer himself?”
“Yes. I heard a car stop and just peeped out, if you know what I mean, to see who it might be. He’d jumped out to open the gates with his headlights on, so I could see him as plain as if it was daylight. When he’d gone through he came back and shut the gates and was off, as you might say.”
“You couldn’t see if there was anyone in the car with him, of course?”
“No. Well, it wasn’t to be expected on a dark night like that. What I mean to say, I could only see him because he was in his headlights. Why, has anyone gone in the night?”
“Lord Penge is not in the house.”
“There! Well, it never rains but it pours. I wonder wherever he can have got to? You don’t think anything can have happened to him, do you?”
“It’s not known yet. What other cars passed through?”
“Nothing that I know of till that Piggott came driving down in the truck this morning. I said to myself, ‘There, he’s early today,’ I said. I don’t know of anyone else.”
“Is the West gate locked at night?”
“Yes, but they don’t have keys to that. None of them. The new lock’s only just been put on, with all this to-do about his Lordship, and only the police have the keys. Even She hasn’t.”
The pronoun, which was spoken with a capital, could only refer, Carolus knew, to Mrs. Spotter.
Gribbley was in the garage-yard.
“Did you see Piggott this morning?” Carolus asked him.
“No. I haven’t seen him to speak to since before dinner last night. He went off early this morning.”
“He did not call at the farm, it appears.”
“So Chilham just told me. I can’t understand it. I know he was under a month’s notice, but he told me yesterday evening that he thought that would all blow over. He doesn’t really want to leave here, and he said he thought Lord Penge would forget it after a few days. They always got on well together before this happened.”
“Can you think of any possible explanation for his absence, Gribbley?”
“I can’t. I’ve been trying to think. If it had been anything out of the way he was certain to have told me. I simply can’t understand it. I thought it might be a breakdown, but I’ve just driven over to the farm to see. Not a sign of him.”
“Lord Penge cannot drive a car?”
“Are you quite sure of that?”
“Absolutely. He didn’t know a gear-lever from a starting-handle.”
“You don’t think it’s possible that he just didn’t like driving and always left it to you?”
“No. I should have known. You can’t drive someone about the years without knowing that.”
“If you can think where Piggott might be let me know at once, will you? For his own sake, I mean.”
“Yes. All right. I expect him back in minute, wherever he’s gone.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Carolus was met in the hall by Eustace, who was dressed now, but looked distraught.
“Mr. Deene, there’s something I must tell you at once. Could you come with me?”
Carolus followed him to a door at the back of the house which was locked. Eustace pulled a key from his pocket and as he inserted it Carolus saw that his hand trembled.
“The gun--room,” Eustace muttered.
The gun-room, like most things at Highcastle Manor, was a little too perfect. The lines of sporting guns looked impressively clean. There was a gap in the line towards which Eustace pointed.
“My father’s savage 30•30 is missing,” he said.
“How did you come to discover that?”
Eustace did not seem to like the question.
“I came to look. I can’t treat this thing as lightly as you do. I’m afraid something’s happened to my father. I had a sort of presentiment.”
“This was the first place you came to, then? You came here before making any search elsewhere?”
“Yes. Ratchett was killed with a gun exactly similar to the one missing from here. Mr. Deene, tell me frankly, do you think my father is dead?”
Carolus looked the young man squarely in the eyes.
“I think it is possible,” he said. “I suggest any rate that you organize a search of the house, the outbuildings and the grounds. More particularly the outbuildings and grounds.”
“You mean . . .”
“I think they should be searched.”
Eustace recovered a little and said, “I suppose the Detective Inspector will see to that. He’s coming up at once.”
“He probably will. There is no reason why you and the staff should not begin. But of course it’s for you to decide.”
Going to the dining-room for a hurried cup of coffee, Carolus discovered the events had at last broken the resolve of the family to masticate their way through every crisis. Only Ronald was at the table.
“I’m not awfully worried about my father,” he said to Carolus. “I’m sure he went with Lockyer. Its obvious, isn’t it? That must have been the reason why Lockyer went off in a hurry—to take my father somewhere.”
This reminded Carolus of his request to Chilham, and he turned to the butler now and asked him to send Wilpey to him.
The valet, when he arrived, looked scared.
“Have you examined Lord Penge’s things?” asked Carolus.
“Yes, sir. So far as I can see there’s nothing missing. Only the clothes he was wearing last night and his overcoat and hat.”
“He was wearing a dinner-jacket.”
“Yes. That’s what’s missing. Nothing’s out of place in his room. He surely wouldn’t have gone away wearing a dinner-jacket, would he? I mean, without taking anything else with him?”
“Unless he meant to return at once.”
Carolus found Mrs. Murdoe waiting in the hall.
“Her Ladyship has just ’phoned,” she said. “She is on her way back.”
“She ’phoned to say that she wasn’t really needed and she was coming home.”
“Did you tell her that Lord Penge was missing?”
“Yes. She said she would come as soon as possible.”
“Did you know where she ’phoned from?”
“I presumed Godalming. That’s where her niece lived. That’s about sixty miles away, but Lady Penge drives rather fast.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Murdoe. Has Hermione come down yet?”
“Yes. I’m afraid she is terribly upset. She’s in the morning-room, if you want to see her.”
“Not at present.”
When Inspector Scudd arrived he did as Carolus anticipated, organized an immediate and methodical search of the whole estate. He entirely ignored Carolus, and Carolus himself quite understood this. It was a moment of crisis for the man in charge of the case, and the mere presence of an amateur was annoying. He had brought two men with him, and gave his instructions clearly.
But it was not one of Scudd’s men who found the body of Lord Penge, but Gribbley. He saw it lying at the back of the garage in which Lockyer’s car and the farm-truck were kept.
Penge had been shot through the head at close quarters. No weapon was in sight. Within a few moments it was known throughout the household that he had been murdered.