A Louse for the Hangman
Mr. Gorringer arrived next morning.
“Ah, Deene, Deene,” he said so inevitably that Carolus knew the end of the sentence before it was spoken, “this is indeed a tragedy!”
“You and the writers of obituaries seem to be the only people who think so. His family hasn’t turned a hair.”
“I can scarcely take you seriously. I am sure that Lady Penge is heart-broken. Heart-broken.”
“If she is it hasn’t spoiled her appetite, I can assure you.”
“Ah. The table at Highcastle Manor was always a liberal one. The children are surely suffering under their heavy loss?”
“The eldest son maybe. The daughter has already recovered sufficiently to become engaged to a man whom her father forbade her to see. The youngest son has not mentioned.”
“Your appal me, Deene. When such a light goes out one would have thought that the family would be blinded with grief.”
“It’s possible. I only say that they shew few signs of it.”
“But how could it happen? How was allowed to happen? There was warning enough, in all conscience. I will reproach myself for not having been at hand.”
“I don’t think you need to reproach yourself for that. It would not have made any difference. Penge was warned not only by the anonymous letters, but also by me. I told him he would not be attacked in his house that night.”
Mr. Gorringer stopped dramatically, for they had been pacing the gravel before the house.
“You don’t mean that you actually anticipated something of this sort?”
“Yes. I told you from the first, Headmaster, but this wasn’t my case. Mine is, after all, a very limited field. I have a certain facility or a great deal of luck investigating murder. I cannot act as a bodyguard or a Cassandra.”
“I accept that. I may well have been to blame in recommending you so strongly to Lord Penge and in persuading you to come here. I should, mayhap, have realized that your forte lay in other directions, not least, I may say, in the inculcation of history. However, retournons à nos moutons. I understand that there is no mystery about the death of Lord Penge.”
“Very little, I think.”
“The police have already arrested the brute responsible? The footman, I learn from the newspapers.”
“The footman has been charged with murder, yes.”
“But no arrest has yet been made in connection with the other little incident?”
“Perhaps you have some suspicion there?”
“If by ‘the other little incident’ you mean the very brutal murder of Michael Ratchett, I think the same person killed both.”
“Ah. I see your drift. You do not think the police have all the facts? Your deductions may at leas throw some new light on the whole tragic sequence of events?”
“I hope so.”
“You intend to propound your theory, my dear Deene? If I mistake me not, I foresee one of those gatherings of the persons concerned with which it is your wont to wind up your investigations? But I must put it to you that here such a thing would surely not been the best of taste. A bereaved family, indeed one may say a bereaved nation, might not be well pleased with such a display of your own virtuosity. Oh, I have no doubt that you would add to our knowledge of the events. I have seen enough of your work on similar occasions to be confident that you would have surprises for us. Your demonstrations have been well enough when less eminent persons were concerned. But do you not think that such a tour de force would be unseemly in the case of Lord Penge?”
“It is already arranged for this evening.”
“I scarcely know what to say. As an old friend of the deceased I cannot but feel it might shew some lack of respect to his memory. On the other hand, I know that you believe such a gathering as you propose to be a sine qua non of investigation, a part of the traditional of detection which the greatest masters have not scorned to use. Is it a large muster which you suggest?”
“Pretty large. There are four members of the family, five of the indoor staff, a chauffeur, a groom and his wife, the wife of one of the gardeners, the tutor Lockyer, a man named Tramper, a Dr. Chilham, a former chauffeur and his wife and I hope the police.”
“But not of course the guilty man. He is already under arrest.”
“I think I can promise you, Headmaster, that the person largely responsible for the death of Lord Penge will be present.”
“Indeed? I cannot . . . but I must not enquire too narrowly before the event. I know that to be against precedent. You have of course sought and obtained the permission of Lady Penge and her elder son?”
“In case there’s little more for me to say. The Press will be excluded?”
“Then I shall lend my presence. At what time did you say?”
“Quite early. About six o’clock. Certain of those who will be there will have . . . journeys to make afterwards.”
“You feel no doubts?”
“Not on the main course of the thing. There is still some evidence that I hope to see this morning. You realize you’re a witness, don’t you? If Piggott is brought to trial for the murder of Penge, you will be called.”
“I have foreseen some such unpleasing prospect since the police called me in Brighton. It will be a most unwelcome duty. Indeed, were this concerned with the murder of someone less distinguished I should tremble for the good name of the Queen’s School, Newminster. But in the case of Lord Penge I feel justified in representing to the Governors that my appearance as a friend of the dead man will in no way be to derogatory.”
“Tell me, Headmaster, what happened about that letter?”
“You refer, I assume, to a letter from Lord Penge which the accused man claims to have left at my hotel on the morning after the body was discovered?”
“There was no such letter.”
A statement so round and curt from Mr. Gorringer should have been convincing. But Carolus pressed the matter.
“I must point out,” he said, “that your statement that there was no such letter will be required in evidence just as much as, or more than, one in which you admitted receiving it.”
“Deene, I have spoken. There was no such letter.”
“Then it must have been picked up by someone else in your hotel.”
“That can scarcely be the case. The Sandringham Private Hotel is a small, I might say intimate, establishment. It is my custom to spend a fortnight there with Mrs. Gorringer during each successive Easter vacation. In the summer Le Balmoral, Ostende (with days spent in Bruges), in the spring the Sandringham, Brighton. The proprietress, a Mrs. Tunney, has become a personal friend of ours, and at this time of year is assisted only by her two nieces, the Misses Plummer, somewhat plain young women well versed in domestic duties. It chanced on the day in question no other guests were in residence. As an habitué of the hotel I have certain little privileges and customs, and among others is the daily removal of the post from the letter-box on the front door and its display on the hall table. That morning I did this at eight-thirty on my way to breakfast—that was a full half-hour after the man Piggott claims to have called. I repeat, there was no letter.”
“Who had come down?”
“Only the elder, and I must confess plainer, Miss Plummer, whose turn it was to cook breakfast. If such a letter had been left it would have been in the box when I emptied it.”
“Piggott is positive he left it there.”
“Piggott is a man on a murder charge. His claims may be said to be neither here nor there.”
“I can’t see how he can of made that up, whatever else he has done.”
“Let us agree that this subject is exhausted,” said Mr. Gorringer airily, “and speak of more relevant matters. It would interest me to learn how you discovered what you believed to be the truth in this case. A series of significant clues? Fingerprints? Analysis? Forensic chemistry? The sifting of complicated evidence? By what line of research did you proceed before your efforts were rewarded?”
“Guesswork and instinct, mostly. How else do I ever ‘proceed’, as you put it?”
“You alarm me. Have you nothing but guesswork and instinct to offer in explaining the death of Lord Penge?”
“Of course I have more now. You asked me how I proceeded. The answer is as usual. I used what intuition and imagination I have in making a general review of the case, when investigated in order to decide whether they were or were not facts to back up my suppositions. I think I’m the only investigator who works that way. The others are more logical—they collect their facts, then draw their conclusions from them. I usually flounder about a day or two till I hit on what seems a solution, using, as I say, more intuition than logic. Then I start testing it. It may have to be discarded, but in this case I was lucky. I was on the target first time.”
Carolus saw Inspector Scudd alight from his car and prepared to join him.
“It sounds strangely haphazard,” said Mr. Gorringer. “You’re certain you have the evidence to support it?”
“No, Headmaster. You have the evidence to support it,” said Carolus, and left Mr. Gorringer with mouth ajar.
He found Detective Inspector Scudd in an ominously amiable mood.
“What about these famous papers of yours, Mr. Deene? I’ve been reading your book about the crime mysteries of history and I can see hidden papers very much in your line.”
“I’ve told you, they’re not exactly hidden. If you like we’ll go this morning and get them?”
“I see nothing against it.”
Both men were being deliberately casual. Carolus knew that the policeman wanted to secure what information he could without revealing any himself, while Carolus was determined to give only if there were an adequate return. He foresaw a good deal of hedging and sparring.
“I hear you went to see Piggott yesterday,” said Scudd as Carolus drove away.
“What did you make of him?”
“He looked pretty cheerful. Doesn’t seem to have much to worry about.”
“Oh, doesn’t he? I should be sorry if I ever had what he has.”
“Yes? Something new turned up?”
“There’s always something new.”
“Getting him linked up with Ratchett’s death, perhaps? That’s the trickier one. Not a vestige of motive, is there? How are you ever going to convince the jury when there’s no motive?
“There is a motive.”
Carolus caught the scent, but did not leap to the pursuit.
“Yes, but nothing worth speaking of,” he said.
“To you, five thousand nicker may not be worth speaking of, Mr. Deene. To me it’s a lot of money.”
“And to Piggott, of course. But how did he know he was going to get it.”
“Ratchett must have told him. A man doesn’t make a Will like that I’m not tell the beneficiary.”
Carolus was delighted with the scrap of information, but resolved that Scudd should not know it was new to him.
“I heard it was rather less,” he said.
“We don’t know to a penny, of course. But it can’t be much less. So don’t tell me there was no motive. I hear you’ve done a bit of enquiring about this man Tramper?”
“Form any conclusions about him?”
“He’s a second-rate crook.”
“Yes, but in connection with the case, I mean?”
“I don’t know what his record is. What convictions has he had?”
“Only two. One for fraud; the other, oddly enough, for Causing Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent to Maim.”
“Really? You wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you?”
“Mr. Deene, when you’ve had the experience I have you will know better than to be influenced by appearances. Do you think Tramper has any connection with the murder of Lord Penge, or not?”
“Direct connection? No.”
“Yet you spent quite a time on him. Are you making for Bexhill?”
“I thought it would more likely be Eastbourne.”
“Did you? Wonderful morning, isn’t it?”
“Wonderful,” said Scudd, and it might have been ‘Amen’.
They drove in silence for some time.
“I hope to be able to tell you more this evening,” said Carolus with an irritating air of being kind. “You are coming to my little gathering, I hope?”
“Yes,” said Scudd. “Having read that book of yours I don’t think I ought to miss it. But frankly, I don’t expect to learn much. We work, as you know, on rather more strict principles.”
“Quite. This is our destination.”
Carolus had drawn up before the pretentious façade of the Royal and Colonial Bank.
“I see. A strong-box?” queried Scudd.
“Yes. Ratchett’s.” Carolus drew out the key and ha handed it to Scudd.
“I don’t know what authority you have to possess this,” observed the Inspector, the policeman coming out in him.
“Nor do I, quite. The important thing for both of us is that it’s here. You can get past the manager.”
They were shewn into Mr. Flinch almost immediately.
“This is Inspector Scudd of the C.I.D.,” said Carolus. “He is investigating the deaths of Michael Ratchett and Lord Penge.”
Mr. Flinch shone, but not with pleasure.
“I hardly know how I can have any information, Inspect-or Rer. Ratchett had an account here, but Lord Penge did not.”
“Ratchett has a strong-box, I think?”
This direct reference to anything so secret seemed to pain Mr. Flinch.
“That is a matter . . . it’s not always easy . . . Inspect-or Rer. I have already explained to Mis-ter Rer here . . .”
“He had a strong-box?”
“I require to open it and take charge of any documents that may contain.”
“Really . . . I scarcely know. This is quite unprecedented in my experience.”
“This is the key,” said Scudd. “Here is my card of authority. I shall, of course, sign for anything I may have to remove.”
“Yes, I quite understand, Inspect-or Rer, but it is . . .”
“Could we get this open now?” said the Inspector. “I have not a great deal of time.”
Mr. Flinch stood up in all the shining splendour of his bright bald head and bright stiff linen.
“Very well,” he said, and led the way.
When they were in the car, Scudd handed Carolus the packet of documents he had removed from Ratchett’s strong-box.”
“I’ll keep my word,” he said. “But we’d better stop on the road for a few minutes while you look at things. Once I’ve handed them in at the Station I can’t shew them to anybody.”
“I quite see that.”
They pulled into the roadside. It was at such a moment that Carroll’s academic training was most useful to him. Accustomed to extracting the data he needed from many miscellaneous sources, he could draw his information now from this bundle in far less time than would be required by most people. He took some pencilled notes and in a quarter of an hour was ready to drive on.
“Got what you wanted?” asked Scudd.
“I’ve got what I feared. This is a rotten business, Scudd.”
“Just realized that? Of course it is. More rotten than you know yet.”
Back in the house, Carolus went straight up to his room. He could not bear the prospect of another large meal with the family, particularly now that the Gorringer would be present. He ’phoned down to Chilham and asked for something simple on a tray in his room, as he would be working there for the next few hours. He should have been more specific, for at one o’clock Chilham ushered in the German girls with trays and Carolus found himself faced with a crab bisque, braised sturgeon, a filet steak with mushrooms, and gooseberry tart. No one enjoyed good food more than he did, but the ten lean years of wartime and after had left him, like most Englishman, unable to do justice to it in quantities natural to other races.
When the last plates had been removed and he was alone with a pot of black coffee, he drew out his notes and began his final co-ordination and preparation of them for the statement he meant to make that evening.
He knew that in this, more than in any case he had tackled, his explanation would mean a severe ordeal, not only for others, but for himself. His listeners would be, officially, the guests of Eustace and Lady Penge. Certain of them would be present under protest, only attending because their absence might be unkindly interpreted. But for most of them the chief emotion would be an avid curiosity. Naturally enough they wanted to know what really had happened.
He waited till six o’clock struck from the little clock-tower over the stables. It should have been a pleasant and peaceful sound, but it seemed to Carolus harsh and peremptory. He could postpone revelation no longer.