A Louse for the Hangman
Driving through the dreary streets surrounding Brixton Prison next day and remembering the stream of wretched man who came this way daily from the London courts, Carolus found himself wondering at the workings of the official mind, that Robot mechanism which ruled men’s lives like a factory clock. In this case, for instance, the police had charged Piggott with the murder of Penge, but no one with the murder of Ratchett. They had pulled the young ex-sailor from his everyday life and thrown him in this gloomy gaol, and it could only be in the sincere belief that he was a murderer. For this belief they obviously had more reasons than others knew. A charge of murder was not lightly brought and certainly not, as Piggott had suggested to Gribbley, for any reason other than it was believed true.
As he passed through the gates and was taken into a grim courtyard, Carolus felt the grey and sickly horror of the place filling his pores like a fog. A few seedy-looking prisoners wearing the own clothes passed him, and the warder who conducted Carolus explained that they were debtors.
“Your man is in the hospital,” he added.
“Why? Is he ill?”
“No. Murder remand. We always keep them in the hospital under observation.”
Carolus was shewn into a small room on the door of which was painted the word ‘Solicitors’. Presuming it meant lawyers and not unfortunate old clergymen brought in from Piccadilly, he entered and waited till Piggott should appear. This took some ten minutes. He was accompanied by a warder, but Carolus and Piggott were left together, the warder taking up his position outside.
The young man looked cheerful enough, though Carolus thought there was something a little brassy and forced in his manner.
“Bastards, aren’t they?” he said after an offhand greeting. “Putting anyone in this filthy, stinking place. It’s enough to turn you up to see the crowd in here. All the dregs and riffraff of London, you’d say they were. It’s not as though they were criminals, most of them. Just rubbish.”
“I gather you’re in the hospital?”
“Yes, all us murderers are in there. You’ve never seen such a collection in your life. Look like respectable churchgoers, most of them. Especially the poor bloke they’ve just brought in for that Chatham job.”
“Oh yes. Why had the girl no shoes?”
“I haven’t got round to asking yet, but I’ll find out for you if you’re curious. How long do you think they’ll keep me here?”
“Until your trial, I suppose. Unless anything happens to convince them you’re not guilty.”
“Such as their coming to believe that it was someone else.”
“They must. They can’t seriously think it was me, can they? What would I want to shoot the old man for?”
“I think you should face the fact that they do think it was you, Piggott. They would not have charged you otherwise for any consideration at all. What’s more, they must have good reason to think it. Suppose you tell me how it all happened?”
“Well, I told you about that row I had with the old man? I was a bit worried about it because I didn’t really want to leave the job, and anyway he’s not a bad old stick. So when he said for me that evening . . .”
“I don’t know. Late. Past eleven, anyway. I went over, meaning if I could to put it straight. But I didn’t need to. The old man did that himself. ‘Oh, Piggott,’ he said in his quiet way. ‘I think perhaps I was a little hasty today. We are all under a strain.’ I said yes, and I’d said more than I meant and was sorry; so he said, very well we’ll forget it.”
“Was that all?”
“No. This is the funny part. He said he thought I’d better take a day off. We all need a bit of a change. So why didn’t I run down to Brighton to my home and he’d let me have the truck for it. What about the stuff from the farm? I asked him, and he said Gribbley could fetch that later in one of the other cars. So I jumped at the chance, naturally.
“Then he said since I was going to Brighton there was something I could do for him. Would I deliver this letter as soon as I arrived? He wanted it there not later than eight in the morning. This meant me getting up at about six, but since he was letting me go I agreed to this.”
“To whom was the letter addressed?”
“To someone called Gorringer at the Sandringham Private Hotel. I took it and was just going to say good night when you old man said, ‘I should prefer that it is not known that you will be absent tomorrow.’ So I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone. The only other thing he said was something about the gun-room. You see, I was responsible for the gun-room.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, nothing important. Just asked if it was in order and that.”
“You had a key of it, of course?”
“Yes. It was always kept locked and it has a barred window.”
“Did you go to it that night?”
“As a matter of fact I did. I thought it funny the old man asking about it and wondered if I’d left something out of place. But no. Everything was there and in order.”
“You’re quite sure of that? I ask because the next morning Eustace discovered that the savage 30•30 belonging to Lord Penge was missing.”
“It was there all right when I looked in. I checked everything, locked the door and went up to bed, setting my alarm for six o’clock next morning.”
“You didn’t tell Gribbley you were going?”
“No. He’d have been asleep by the time I went to bed, and anyhow the old man had told me not to say anything. Grib would hear in the morning, I thought, when he was sent to the farm.”
“And you spoke to no one else?”
“No. The alarm went off all right and I dressed and went down to the garage for the truck.”
“This may be rather important. Were the garage doors shut or open when you reached them?”
“Shut. They’re roller doors, as you may have noticed, and take quite a bit of shutting. But they were closed. Lockyer’s car was out.”
“Did that strike you as strange?”
“Not really. He often used to go off for a week-end or a night. I just noticed it, hopped in the truck and was off.”
“How light was it?”
“Dark enough for headlights at first ”
“When you had opened the garage doors you entered the garage no more than to get into the driving-seat of the truck?”
“And it had been backed in?”
“Did Lockyer usually run his car in forwards or did he back in like you?”
“I see. Go on with what happened that day.”
“I ran down to Brighton quite comfortably. It was light when I arrived at my home. Mum was up, and very surprised to see me with the truck. She got me some breakfast and I sat talking to her while she was doing her work. She’s very fussy about the house and takes longer than anyone I know to get it how she likes. Then she had to go out shopping, and I went with her. It was twelve o’clock when we got back and saw the police waiting by the truck.
“Of course mum went right off the deep end and asked what I’d been up to. Then, when they shewed me the Savage in the back of the truck and said Lord Penge had been murdered, she calmed down a bit because she knew it couldn’t have anything to do with me. That’s like mum, ready to tear me to ribbons if I’m in trouble for something I’ve done, like that time I was adrift from the Navy, but right with me when it’s some dam’ silly thing like this. However, they only said they wanted to ask me a few questions, and I went down to the station with them.
“Then it began. I soon saw that they weren’t going to believe that Penge had given me the day off, so I told them about the letter to this character Gorringer. They said they would go and ask him, and then a funny thing happened—they came back and said they had seen him but there hadn’t been any letter. It had been too early when I got to this Sandringham Private Hotel to knock anyone up, so I’d dropped it in the letter-box. I told the coppers that, but they only said that Gorringer was quite positive. He had received no letter that morning from Lord Penge. That made it worse for me. Why should he say a thing like that? What sort of man is he? Do you know him?”
“Yes,” said Carolus. “I can only say I have never known him to tell a deliberate lie.”
“Well, he did this time, and it’s dropped me right in trouble. The next thing was the rifle. It appeared it had the silencer on it. They almost laughed when I said I had no idea it was in the back of the truck. They asked if I had seen it before, and I said of course I had. I was in charge of the gun-room, wasn’t I? So they said when had I seen it last, and I told them the night before in the gun-room. ‘So you admit going to the gun-room last night?’ they said, and I told them I had no reason not to admit it.
“Then they told me my fingerprints were on the rifle, and I said, why not? I’d cleaned it the previous day. They said, ‘Ah, but this is the rifle used to kill Lord Penge, and there are no other fingerprints on it.’ It was no use telling them that whoever had shot him could have worn gloves. I just let them go on.
“They’d heard about my row with the old man and they made the most of that. What I’d said and what I hadn’t said. I thought they were never going to let me alone. Then, just when it didn’t look as though there was anything more for them to ask me, they began on the other lot, the anonymous letters and Ratchett. Can you believe it? They want to put that on me, too!”
“It is generally accepted that both Ratchett and Penge were killed by the same person. I think so myself.”
“Yes, but you don’t think it’s me, for God’s sake. Those coppers were sure of it by the time they’d finished. But there wasn’t much to base the charge on, so in the end they charged me just with killing Penge. As if that wasn’t enough. So what’s going to happen?”
Carolus looked at him steadily.
“I am going to explain what actually took place,” he said.
Piggott returned his look without evasion.
“The lot?” he asked at last.”
There was a rather tense silence in the room.
“Will that mean they let me go?”
“You must answer that question for yourself,” said Carolus.
“One thing, anyway. Will you see this Gorringer and find out why he lied about that letter I took him?”
“I shall certainly see him.”
“And tell old Grib I’m all right, will you? When you see him, I mean.”
“I’ll do that.”
Driving back to Highcastle, Carolus felt no elation at having obtained, by means somewhat oblique, the information he wanted. More than once during his recent cases he had felt oppressed by his responsibilities. It was no light thing to have this flair for finding out the heart of the matter, and it gave him duties towards people and sometimes made him interfere in a way the detested with the lives of others. It was one thing to investigate a crime and discover the truth about it; it was quite another to find himself against his own will an arbiter who had to decide for himself how to act when his actions might mean death or life to a fellow human being.
Besides, he found the atmosphere at Highcastle Manor an unpleasant one. The way in which the family, either by joint resolution or by a natural tendency to act a part, shewed complacency in the face of death, was nothing short of callous. And not only death, but the fate of those about them. Carolus did not believe that any one of them really believed Piggott guilty, yet Gribbley seemed the only one in the least concerned with him and the charge against him.
It was somewhat macabre, thought Carolus, to see the whole archaic game go on, the huge meals, the organized service, the obstinate maintenance of an extravagant and out-of-date way of life. The police, the inquest on the head of the household, the rest of their footman, Carolus himself with his eternal questions, the two funerals, the screaming headlines in sensational newspapers—all these left this collection of people outwardly unmoved. Eustace was the only one who had seemed concerned about the threat to his father, and now Eustace seemed more angry than sorry at his death.
When he reached the East gate he found it standing open for the first time since he had known the place. It seemed that the police considered no more security precautions necessary. But Mrs. Carker was at her garden gate, and waved to him energetically to stop. She seemed animated.
“What do you think?” she asked rhetorically. “That Lockyer came back this afternoon and never so much as said good afternoon as he went driving in. To my way of thinking that’s no way for anyone to behave, especially when there’re nothing to speak of themselves, as you might say. Then he hadn’t been up at the house ten minutes before the police came and took him away for questioning, as well they might. I said to myself when I saw them go, ‘I should think they would want to ask questions,’ I said, ‘what with him popping off like that on the night of the murder and one thing and another. It wouldn’t surprise me if it went further than questions, upon my word it wouldn’t.’ Anyway, they’ve got him now, and I shouldn’t like to say when they let him go, if they don’t keep him in altogether which I wouldn’t put past them, things being what they are. I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t believe it was that Piggott who did it, though I can’t say I’ve ever really taken to him. Still, you wouldn’t wish for anything like that, whichever way you look at it. Well, I must be getting on, because my husband will be home in a minute. I shouldn’t wonder if that Lockyer had a hand in it that night when I saw him opening the gate as plain as a pikestaff. I said to myself then, ‘I don’t believe he’s up to any good,’ I said, and it’s turned out I wasn’t far wrong, hasn’t it? Well, this won’t do. I’ve got my husband’s tea to get. It’s really dreadful about his Lordship being done for like that, after the murderer telling him he was going to be killed the same as Ratchett was. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it when my husband came home full of it the other morning. I said to myself, ‘They wouldn’t do anything like that to his Lordship, would they? because he’s so quiet and nice with everyone,’ but there you are . . .”
Carolus seized this momentary pause.
“This won’t do,” he said with a friendly smile. “I must be getting on.”
Before Mrs. Carker could reply he let the car glide gently forward.
Lady Penge was in the hall.
“Oh, Mr. Deene, I have news for you,” she said. “Your friend Mr. Gorringer is coming over tomorrow. He feels he should be present at the inquest.”
“I think he should, too. Surprisingly enough, he has some evidence, I believe, which may be valuable.”
Lady Penge smiled.
“Gorringer!” she said and chuckled.
Carolus went upstairs to change, and returning just before eight o’clock found Hermione alone. She was rather flushed.
“So you went to see Stanley.”
Carolus remembered that Stanley was young Chilham’s first name.
“Yes. I think you understand why I had to do so. I knew he was over here that night.”
“How did you know?”
“I saw him.”
“You’re mad if you suspect him having anything to do with Father’s death.”
This was said tentatively rather than emphatically, and Carolus did not answer it.
“Anyway,” Hermione continued, her manner growing defiant—“anyway, we’re engaged now. That ought to shew you that neither of us is worried about your suspicions or anyone else’s. We should scarcely announce our engagement straight away if we had anything to do with my father’s death which made it possible.”
“A good argument. You certainly haven’t wasted any time.”
“What’s more, we’re going to get married as soon as Stanley can get a licence.”
“ ‘The funeral bak’d meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’.”
“Not as bad as that, perhaps, but we’ve no reason to delay now. We’ve waited so long, you see, because of Father. Mummy agrees.”
“Yes. I understand.”
“On the other hand, Mr. Deene, I do wish you or the police or someone would clear all the mystery up before the wedding. It is hateful not to know.”
“And awkward, surely, to have one of your servants in prison on a capital charge?”
“Yes, that too. When are you going to tell us everything?”
“You think you will be happier when you know?”
“As long as . . . Yes, of course we shall.”
“I’m going to do my best to put everyone out of doubt tomorrow. But I warn you, it’s not going to make you very happy.”