A Louse for the Hangman
Though Carolus supposed to his audience had long perceived where his thirteen points were leading, even that several of them have been expecting that name for a long time, he found that his statement had fallen with almost atomic force among them.
Eustace was on his feet shouting something like “You dare!” or “How dare you?” Hermione was crying and Ronald in his thin, high-pitched tones shouted, “It’s a lie!”
Mr. Gorringer made his voice heard.
“Outrageous, Deene, outrageous! Before Lady Penge, too. If this is some of your ill-timed levity, you will answer for it, sir!”
From the back of the room came a hum and worry of indignation. “What a thing to say?” “There!” “Fancy saying that!” “What a liberty!”
When the first outpourings were subsiding Lady Penge spoke.
“Please go on, Mr. Deene,” she said.
“I’m afraid what follows will be very painful to you, Lady Penge.”
“I’m well aware of it. I wish you to continue.”
“Very well. As you wish. Lord Penge murdered Ratchett for a very good reason. Ratchett was blackmailing him. I first suspected this when I heard that within six months of his receiving these mysterious papers from Buenos Aires, Ratchett had obtained five thousand pounds from his employer on the plea that it was to avoid death duties. I became more sure of it when I heard from Wilpey some of the words used between Lord and Lady Penge in a quarrel which was overheard by Frieda. I maintain that these words could bear no construction other than this—that Lady Penge had discovered what it was Ratchett knew about her husband which enabled him to draw money. Exactly what this was I do not intend to reveal now, since it is a private matter for the family, but I must say that my suspicions have been confirmed without a doubt by the papers taken by Detective Inspector Scudd from a strong-box rented by Ratchett at the Royal and Colonial Bank, Bexhill. They provide proof that Lord Penge did something during his three years in Argentina as a young man which, if it was revealed in later life, would ruin him and hurt his family. Ratchett had discovered this, and was using it for his own advantage.
“So Lord Penge decided to kill Ratchett, making it appear to be attacked by someone who wanted to murder him, Lord Penge. I think he probably had all the anonymous letters typed ready before he began and possibly others, to allow for all contingencies. My guess would be that he bought a second-hand typewriter specially for the purpose and got rid of it again afterwards. It was unlucky that Tramper had one of the same make and age, for this caused me some extra trouble in checking that the letters had not been typed on it. Owing to the elaborate security arrangements Lord Penge had made for the Manor post, he was able to send the last one to himself without leaving the house. The earlier ones had all been posted on days when he was in London.
“I must own but when I saw Lady Penge secretly posting a letter of the day before the last anonymous one was received I did for a moment wonder . . .”
“Shame” cried Mr. Gorringer.
“But I realized afterwards that she was writing to her cousin, because she was not sure of the Manor ’phone, to make arrangements to get her, at all costs, out of the house for a time. The cousin was to answer any queries with the statement that she had begged Lady Penge to come at once.”
“Perfectly right,” said Lady Penge.
“So the thing was organized; but then Lord Penge came up against a snag. The police did not take his anonymous letters very seriously, and it looked as though he would have difficulty in convincing anyone that they were real and earnest when the time came. It was essential that the crime should be watched by someone intelligent enough to think that the murderer intended to kill Lord Penge but not intelligent enough to see that this was a double bluff. So, not having a very high opinion of Mr. Gorringer’s discrimination, he asked him to invite an amateur detective he had mentioned as clever. That was me. I refused, and he decided to go ahead. He believed he was successful, and was not at all pleased when Mr. Gorringer said that now there was a corpse I was coming. But his displeasure, like most emotions of his, he concealed.
“On the Sunday before the day he had picked for the murder, Lord Penge went across to Ratchett’s cottage. He had taken to frequent calls there lately to prevent any particular one being noticeable and to give probability to the idea that the murderer could mistake someone walking across there for him. He was wearing, according to the observant Mrs. Carker, a particularly long overcoat, and he left, according to the same authority, after it was dark. I have no doubt it was at this time that he appropriated Ratchett’s Savage 30•30.
“Then came the afternoon of the murder. At something well past seven, when it was already dark, he suddenly discovered the need of a document which he knew was in Ratchett’s cottage and sent the secretary across. We shall never know how he persuaded him to wear his coat, indeed I have played with the idea that he punctured it ready to put it on Ratchett after death. More probably he said, ‘Don’t wait to go to the hall for your coat; take mine.’ It is the same with Ratchett’s glasses. Penge may have taken those off after death and brought them back to the library.
“At all events, when Ratchett left he followed him at distance and took up his position at the forked tree, exactly as the police decided the murderer did. His strict rule that no one should enter the library when he was working would ensure that his absence from house was not known. When Ratchett returned he stopped him at gunpoint. Again I can only guess but I daresay he said they were going over to Ratchett’s cottage now to obtain and destroy those incriminating documents. If so, he told Ratchett to lead the way, and with the torch shining on him could easily kill him at fifteen yards.
“There is something rather interesting here. Nobody except Lord Penge, who was supposed to be in a study behind closed doors, claimed definitely to have heard the shots. I wonder how many of you noticed that? At least eight people were within the probable earshot, and three would certainly have heard them if they had been audible. But Lord Penge used the specially constructed silencer he had had made.
“He then went to the dead man, removed whatever documents Ratchett had been to fetch and put the dead hands in the overcoat pockets. If he left them as they probably were, spread out above the dead man’s head, it would have shewn that Ratchett had his hands up when he was shot and could have revealed the whole plot. He then removed the silencer, threw Ratchett’s gun in one of the ponds and returned to the house. He sent Gribbley and Piggott over to the corpse and, as he told me, gave himself a stiff whisky-and-soda. He had accomplished what he had set out to do.
“So, you see, Lord Penge fulfilled all my thirteen points. He had a most adequate motive. Lady Penge had the same, and so in a way had Eustace, had he but known it. He had created the situation in which it would appear that he himself was the intended victim. He was perhaps the only person who had had an opportunity of taking that Ratchett’s rifle, which could only have been removed at night, when even Ratchett locked his cottage. He was a practised shot. He, and he alone, knew that Ratchett would be coming along that path at that moment. He was, by his own admission, the first to reach the corpse and the only person who could move the hands and remove the document. He returned to the house. He was the only person who knew Ratchett was wearing his coat. He was perfectly able almost without fear of detection to be in the park before the murder and quite without question after it, for, as we have seen, he did not send Ratchett over till well after seven, when it was dark. He was certainly stoical enough to go through the rest of the evening without giving himself away. He could not possibly be suspected of wanting to kill Lord Penge and he was afraid that his reason for wanting to kill Ratchett could become known. He had had the opportunity to type and send anonymous letters. He had, as one could see in his character, the qualities necessary for this murder, and with them the love of his family and pride in his position and theirs which made it necessary. He was the only person who fulfilled every one of these conditions. I don’t know how all of you failed to see it.”
“I must halt you there,” said Mr. Gorringer. “Can it be that you have mooted this monstrous suggestion about Lord Penge on nothing but the circumstantial tittle-tattle and personal opinion which you have put forward?”
“You’d better hear the rest,” said Carolus. “But there’ll be no comfort in it, for you or anyone else.”
There was a pause and Carolus continued:
“Out of sheer meticulousness and the habit of drawing up a report—a bad habit acquired in the Army—I went into details of the other persons who might have been considered suspects. A short chat with Mrs. Worsdyke was all that was necessary to convince me that her husband was not even remotely concerned in the matter, though by an unfortunate coincidence he was in Highcastle on the afternoon of the murder. I found that Tramper’s story of his wife’s death from food poisoning was true, though there was nothing to shew that it had been due to a product of Archer and Buck’s. Tramper probably did ask Ratchett to obtain a settlement of his nebulous claim, and it may even be true that Ratchett kept him hanging round with the idea of using him in some scheme of his own. Ratchett, on the previous occasion when he had obtained a large sum of money, was very careful to have cover for the transaction—the supposed anticipation of the Will to avoid death duties—and it is conceivable that he wanted some such cover again and intended to make Tramper provide it. But that is only guesswork based on Tramper’s statement that Ratchett gave him hopes. There was nothing whatever to connect him with the murder and a short acquaintance with him shewed me that he had neither the determination not even the ability to commit it. Chilham noticed that he was not sober when he called at the house a little more than an hour before the shots.
“But the elimination of suspects was a formality. I knew that no one but Lord Penge could have shot Ratchett, and if I needed more proof he soon provided it. He could see that neither the police nor I were quite convinced by the mistaken identity idea. Detective Inspector Scudd said to me in his hearing—‘We’re not taking it as absolutely certain that Ratchett was shot in mistake for Lord Penge’, and I said much the same to Eustace, who no doubt repeated it. So he decided to give weight to the idea by a pretended attempt on his life.
“This was not easy to fake. He couldn’t just come into the house with a bullet-hole through his hat and say he had been shot at. He decided to do the thing by poisoning, but then did not see how he could ‘discover’ this convincingly. What he did in the end was as ingenious as the rest of his actions and gives a hint of the reason for his remarkable success in early life. He added poison to the medicine which Chilham brought him each day at seven, and instead of replacing the bottle on the tray, left it on the writing-table beside it. This would be noticeable to Chilham, but would not disprove the idea of a murderer having entered the room and poisoned the medicine. He opened one of the windows, which in any case stuck at that point, about a foot. Then, leaving only his eyes uncovered between something black wrapped round his face and an unfamiliar hat pulled down, he left the library by the french windows and peered in at the morning-room where Hermione would almost certainly be. If he had been seen by anyone he would have explained that he had heard or seen or suspected an intruder in the library, which would have produced the same effect, but less convincingly. His calling Chilham in front of me and letting him of his own accord notice the misplaced medicine bottle was a masterly touch. Had I not by then been convinced that he had murdered Ratchett, I should have been deceived by it.
“The next incident which seemed to be significant was the second appearance to Hermione of a face of the morning-room window. I might have been more alarmed by it if I had not noticed that afternoon that Spotter had lit a fire in the little sitting-room over the stables where he had once lived. Knowing Spotter’s devotion to horse-lovers, and being with him when Hermione telephoned instructions to him, I guessed that this might be done for her sake, for what better place could there be in which to meet the man to whom she is now engaged? But how was he to reach the stables? There were two plain-clothes men watching for just such an intrusion. Hermione could not leave the house for long without a good reason, and since the murder of Ratchett had made difficulties she probably have not been able to see Dr. Chilham. So when she was called to the ’phone that day (it was noticeable, by the way, that Chilham came and summoned her instead of putting the call through to her) she told her young friend to cross from the road at exactly ten past seven. She then created a diversion by pretending to see the face at the window again and urgently sending for the two plain-clothes men to tell them about it. Noticing this, I went out to the stables and was in time to see Dr. Chilham come in and go upstairs . . .”
“Once again I must interrupt,” said Mr. Gorringer. “You have collected more than a score of people, including the bereaved widow and heir, to hear one thing—who killed Lord Penge. We have listened to a rigmarole of nonsense by which you have sought to convince us that he himself was a cold-blooded murderer, but you have thrown no light at all on the essential question. I’m sure that everyone present, including the members of the Police Force, is as weary of these slanders as I am. If you have nothing to say, Mr. Deene, let us draw a curtain on this most unfortunate and for me humiliating occasion.”
“Yes,” said Eustace. “Who killed my father?”
“I did,” said Carolus calmly, “or at least, I was largely responsible for his death. I caused him to commit suicide.”
Once again there was an angry outbreak. Once again Lady Penge quelled it by insisting that Carolus should continue.
“You are very brave, dear Lady,” said Mr. Gorringer. “But if Mr. Deene has nothing better to offer, I suggest that we adjourn. A child could see that it was not suicide. There was no weapon beside the body.”
Carolus ignored this.
“I was faced with a hateful situation,” he said. “I believed myself to be the only person who suspected Lord Penge of Ratchett’s murder. What was my duty? Immediately to give the police the information in my hands? Or to drop the case on the plea that blackmail justifies murder? Or what? If I did the first, there would be, for the family, the hideous experience of a famous trial in which they would all appear as witnesses. The very thing which Lord Penge had murdered to safeguard—the future of his son—would be completely ruined, and there would be other consequences in the family which I need not specify. On the other hand, if I decided to forget the whole thing I should be betraying something which to me is far dearer: the ideal of historical truth. For that, frankly, I would suffer myself or cause others to suffer. It was against all my principles to shield a murderer.
“In the end I decided on a compromise. I did not mind cheating the hangman so long as I did not cheat myself. A louse for the hangman, I said. I let Lord Penge know that I knew the truth, and left it to him to act. I thought that in all probability he would commit suicide, and I’m bound to say I thought this would be the best solution. But I did not anticipate what happened. I did not realize that on the subject of his family and the future of this family he was not sane.
“I told him that on the following day I was going to reveal the truth. Hoping against hope he continued to question me to confirm that I knew this, and I made it even clearer, adding that I had already posted away my notes on the case. I also told him that I was aware of Ratchett’s strong-box, which meant to him that I not only knew of his crime but suspected its motive. But all this was no more than the final confirmation to him. He had already decided, I believe. He was perfectly cool, and I think in a mad way courageous about it.
“I use the word ‘mad’. Is the kindest one for his actions from now on. Determined as he was that as little shadow as possible should fall on his family, he decided that he must appear to have been murdered, and went to the length of providing two suspects for the crime. He called Lockyer late that evening and representing that he was afraid of the threats to his life and meant to hide for a time, sent the tutor to his shooting-box in the highlands. Lockyer must start at one, he said, this very night, and drive straight to Achendouroch. He would follow. Lockyer in all innocence set off and reached Achendouroch, where he saw no newspapers for some days and did not know that the police wanted to question him till I drove up and found him there.
“But before this Lord Penge had sent for Piggott and pretending regret for a quarrel of that afternoon told him to take the next day off, lending him the truck on the condition that he left early for Brighton in order to deliver a letter to Mr. Gorringer at the Sandringham Private Hotel. It must be there by eight o’clock, he said, and this meant that Piggott would leave before daylight.
“When Lockyer was leaving, and accompanied him to the garages, and as soon as he had gone took his own Savage 30•30 with its silencer from its hiding place in the garage in which Lockyer kept his car.”
“You’re wrong there,” interrupted Lockyer.
“Oh? Hadn’t he hidden the Savage in advance?”
“No. He carried it with him when he came with me to the garages. Said it might be useful in self-defence and he never moved from the house nowadays without it. That seemed natural enough to me.”
“Yes. It would have seemed so to me. But you didn’t tell me that.”
“I’d completely forgotten it till now.”
“The truck in which Piggott would leave next morning was standing there. Lord Penge went to the back of this and, facing in the same direction as the truck, leaned on the tailboard. He then put the barrel of the rifle to his head so that after the shot the rifle would fall into the truck, while he would fall behind it. He was wearing gloves to leave no fingerprints on the rifle. He pressed the trigger.
“The result was, as you know, disastrous for Piggott. That young man came out to the garage in which there was no electric light, soon after six o’clock next morning. He did as we all do with our cars, jumped in without looking inside it or behind it. He then drove away quite unconscious of the fact that he left Lord Penge’s body on the ground behind him and carried the rifle which killed him in his truck. When he was arrested that morning he still did not know it was there.
“There is one mystery left here. The letter which he took to Mr. Gorringer’s private hotel never reached him.”
“Must I repeat it, Deene? There was no letter.”
“I had hoped that Lord Penge’s conscience was not quite so blind as that. I thought perhaps he had sent to Mr. Gorringer, and old and valued friend, some instructions on how to act if either Piggott or Lockyer were in real and immediate danger of trial or execution for his murder. But it seems I was wrong. Lord Penge was perfectly prepared to let one or both of these young men be hanged for a crime of which they are equally innocent.”
It was clear that Mr. Gorringer was suffering agonies of doubt. The whole monstrous edifice of his faith in the bloater-paste king was cracking, but had not quite fallen. It had been such an important feature in his own life, the present eminence of a one-time fellow undergraduate, that he could not reconcile himself to its loss so quickly. But he was not a complete fool, and a part of him knew that Carolus was right.
“A solemn promise made to a doomed man . . .” he began.
“Did you see Lord Penge that night?” asked Carolus excitedly.
“No. No. The telephone. A solemn promise to one who is passed on is not to be lightly broken.”
“Oh, he rang you up. He did make some provision for the protection of Piggott and Lockyer if they needed it. What was it?”
“If you are prepared to assure me, Deene, that two human lives may depend upon it, I have no alternative. I must break my vow.”
“Certainly I assure you that at least one life depends on it. Piggott has been charged with murder. I saw him yesterday.”
“Then it shall be done! Lord Penge telephoned me and said that he was sending me in the early morning an envelope addressed to me. This would contain another envelope, sealed. He required my word of honour as his oldest friend that the seal would only be broken if he should be killed and Piggott or Lockyer found guilty of his murder. He also bound me by a most sacred promise of secrecy in the matter, a secrecy only to be broken if one of the two men was in danger of execution.”
“He was prepared to go as far as that, was he? Let’s have a look at the letter.”
Mr. Gorringer thrust his hand into his breast pocket and dramatically drew out a sealed envelope and handed it to Carolus.
“I wash my hands of it,” he said.
Carolus glanced at the contents, while everybody in the room kept a tense silence.
“As I thought, a full confession of the murder of Ratchett. Here, you’d better have it, Inspector. It’ll clear young Piggott.”
Carolus felt exhausted by the strain of this long and painful statement and took little notice as the company disbanded. He did not want to hear their comments, he did not want to see them again or Highcastle Manor or any of its inhabitants. At that moment he did not want ever to investigate another murder.
He found itself at last alone with Lady Penge, Gorringer and Eustace.
“And what was it, Mr. Deene, that Ratchett knew about my father?” asked Eustace.
“I think your mother knows that and will tell you herself.”
“No. You tell us. I know no details,” said Lady Penge.
“Your father was a very young man when he was sent out to Argentina. He seems to have done what better and worse young men have done before and since—married a prostitute. She was an Englishwoman named Ivy Smith, and she had a small son by a former associate of hers. She left your father after a time and returned to her profession, but in the meantime he persuaded his firm’s agent and his wife, a childless couple named Ratchett to adopt the boy. Before leaving Argentina your father did what he could to find his wife in order to dissolve their marriage, but he failed in this and in every subsequent attempt to find her. Since the average life-time of a prostitute in Argentina at that time was a very short one, he was perhaps justified in supposing her dead when he married your mother, but as she was never officially ‘presumed dead’ the marriage was not a legal one.
“Ratchett at first knew nothing of this or of his own heritage. He always believed himself to be the son of the Ratchetts and knew Lord Penge by name from them. He obtained his post here through this.
“Then a year ago his real mother died, leaving what she had to him, and with her possessions was sent to him her marriage certificate. I saw this today, together with certain other documents. The marriage certificate proved, of course, that his marriage to your mother was bigamous, and therefore disproved your right to inherit the title. It was on this that Ratchett secured his five thousand pounds. Though we have no evidence of it, we must suppose that Ratchett, like most blackmailers, was insatiable. It was to end that situation and secure your right to succeed to the title that your father murdered Ratchett. You see, he had that dangerous form of paranoia, an ambition for dynasty-founding. It seemed to him the most important thing in the world that there should be a second Lord Penge.
“There is one curious little footnote to that. Ratchett, as you all observed, was a reserved and probably lonely man. He had no living relatives. Only one person seemed to go out of his way sometimes to persuade him to talk, and that was Piggott, who used to visit him. Piggott was rewarded for that in Ratchett’s will.”
“That is absolutely all I know about this case, and I would rather we talked no more of it.”
Mr. Gorringer broke a long silence.
“What you have told us, Deene, has been a severe shock to us all. Since I carried, unbeknown to myself, Lord Penge’s own confession of his crime, I can doubt no longer. But it has being a very terrible experience for us to learn what we have.”
“It has not been a very pleasant one for me, Headmaster.”
“Sympathies are, perforce, divided, but I think we should resolve to remember Lord Penge’s finer qualities and higher motives and more splendid achievements, and forget the one dreadful thing he persuaded himself to do. I think we should . . .”
“I think we should have a drink,” said Lady Penge firmly and rang the bell for Chilham.
— THE END —