A Louse for the Hangman
Before he reached the dining-room next morning Carolus guessed what breakfast would be like at Highcastle Manor. He was embarrassingly right. At the vast sideboard stood Chilham dealing with a series of dishes over burners, but even that expense of mahogany was not large enough for all the food to be exhibited and a side-table stood beside it. Carolus saw a large York ham, a fine tongue, a brawn and a galantine, while under the covers of Chilham’s dishes were mushrooms, kidneys, bacon, kedgeree, smoked haddock, scrambled eggs, kippers, grilled cutlets and sausages.
Reeling a little, Carolus was about to make his way to the table for his customary toast and butter when Chilham, evidently misreading his motives in not pausing at the sideboard, came forward.
“Would you like an omelette, sir?” he asked gravely. “Or there’s some nice game-pie.”
Carolus declined and joined Hermione and Eustace at the table. They were enjoying smoked trout as a small part of their simple breakfast. Carolus wondered how this family fared during rationing.
Lord Penge joined them, and after eating a few peaches accepted a plate of porridge and cream.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked Carolus, and Carolus wondered whether there were not a suggestion of anxiety in the question.”
“Not very, I’m afraid,” said Carolus. “My room was most comfortable, but I never manage to sleep well in strange surroundings. Small noises seem unnaturally loud and I lie awake listening for a long time. Rather childish, I’m afraid.”
“Not at all,” said Lord Penge. “I have the same habit.”
After breakfast Eustace spoke seriously to Carolus alone.
“Do you really think the police know what they doing?” he asked. “It seems to me pretty foolhardy of Father to stay here when we know another attempt will be made on his life. And it won’t be a mistake this time.”
“I should think your father’s as safe here as anywhere,” said Carolus. “If he has got a madman after him, merely going somewhere else isn’t going to help much. The only real safety for everyone lies in finding out who shot Ratchett.”
“But what are these security arrangements the police have made? Are they really adequate? It seems to me that almost anyone could get into the place.”
“It’s the sort of thing the police are usually pretty good at,” said Carolus. I don’t think you need to worry.”
“Mr. Deene, as a personal favour to the family will you test the police defences in some way? It would be a great relief to us if they were found to be better than we think.”
’ Carolus thought of Detective Inspector Scudd’s sharp retort of yesterday. He had not been piqued by it, but it did seem to him that the policeman was a little over-confident.
“I might try,” said Carolus. But not immediately. I’ve got some inquiries to make which are most urgent.”
“Oh. Whom do you want to question?”
“Mrs. Carker,” said Carolus at once. “She acted as housekeeper to Ratchett, I believe, and her cottage is a few yards from his. If she is at all an observant person that evidence will be most valuable.”
“She’s observant all right, but of course I can’t see what Michael’s life has to do with it. However, you know . . .”
“Someone took that rifle from the cottage,” said Carolus.
“Yes. There’s that. D’you want your car brought round? I’ll tell Gribbley.”
Carolus went out to the front door, as he wished to meet the chauffeur when he came. He found Gribbley a tubby, cheerful, red-faced man in his early fifties, willing, if not anxious, to chatter. He addressed Carolus by name.
“Yes, Mr. Deene, Piggott told me who you were and what you were here for. I am sure I wish you luck. I’d like to see the beggar caught and hanged.”
“Of course, you knew Piggott before.”
“In the Andrew, sir.”
“Yes. You got him his job here, I believe?”
“No, as a matter of fact he got me mine. He came out some time before I did because I was thinking my twenty-one. I was a PO, you see, sir, and it made it worth it for the pension. Piggott got this job here, and just when I was coming out the last chauffeur got religious mania and thought his lordship’s Rolls was an avenging chariot and drove it across the park at Mrs. Spotter saying she was the whore of Babylon. So I got the job.”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions, some time, Gribbley.”
“Certainly, sir. Come round to the garage when you want. Piggott might be able to tell you something too.”
Driving away, Carolus thought how pleasant, to all appearances, these people were. What a kind, friendly, hospitable, happy household it was—to all appearances. Why, to all appearances there was not one of them who would so much as say an unkind word of another, let alone do a brutal or even a thoughtless thing. Jolly ex-naval men, nice ex-RAF man, faithful old butler, cheerful and warm-hearted mother, devoted children—one could not ask for more, to all appearances. Yet there had been that sudden flight from the house by its youngest member and the business-like pursuit of him by his muscular tutor. That had yet to be explained before these sweet appearances could quite be accepted.
He found Mrs. Carker waiting for him, a neat little woman in a gingerbread house of a lodge with a spotless apron and smooth silver hair. She was expecting him and volubly told him so. Within a few minutes Carolus realized that she must spend most of her waking hours in autolocution laced with as heavy a measure of clichés as the words could would carry.
“Yes, Mr. Eustace telephoned to tell me you were coming, and I said to myself, ‘I wonder whatever he’ll want to know.’ It isn’t as though I ever went spying into anyone’s affairs, because what with one thing and another I’ve got enough worries of my own. Still, if there’s anything I can tell you I’m sure I’d only be too willing if it’ll help to find out who killed Mister Ratchett. I said to myself when I heard about it, ‘Well, that’s a nice thing, a gentleman being shot in the back and no one knowing who did it.’ Would you like to come in, sir, or do you want to go to Mr. Ratchett’s cottage that was?”
“Perhaps that would be best.”
Mrs. Carker pulled on a woollen shawl and looked perfectly in character. How nice and white and old-England and picture-book they all appeared. It might be the world of Kate Greenaway or Walter Crane.
“It’s just as he left it. The police have never so much as asked me anything about it, but they may know what they’re about. We’re not to know, are we? I said to myself, ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I suppose I shall have detectives along now wanting to know this, that and the other, and there’s enough to do without that.’ But they’ve never put foot in the place, so you don’t know what to think, do you?”
They entered the little brick-floored sitting room and Mrs. Carker crossed to open a window, for the room was both stuffy and musty. In the corner, leaning against the wall, were two sporting guns. Carolus eyed these.
“You’re looking at his guns,” said Mrs. Carker; “and well you might, because it’s my belief, and no one will ever make me think different, that the murderer stole Mr. Ratchett’s gun from there not a quarter of an hour before he shot him.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because Mr. Ratchett never thought to lock the cottage before he went out, and that evening someone came in to get something and went out again, or may I never move from here.”
“What time was that?”
“Must have been well after seven. I saw the light come on in this room from where I was in my kitchen, though of course I couldn’t see who it was. ‘Oh,’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s Mr. Ratchett popped in to get something,’ but from all accounts it wasn’t, because from what I can hear he’d only just left his Lordship when he was shot. So there you are. It couldn’t only have been one thing whichever way you look at it. It was the murderer come for the rifle and, what’s more, he must have known where to lay hands on it and how to get it, because he wasn’t in the place not more than a few minutes, and I heard the door slam after him. ‘There,’ I said to myself, ‘Mr. Ratchett is in a hurry’; and I only wish I’d have been right, because when all’s said and done he might be alive and well to this day if it had of been him. You never know, do you? But if anyone was to have told me that the light I saw was the murderer coming for the weapon I shouldn’t have known whether I was standing on my head or my heels. It’s lucky I thought it was Mr. Ratchett.”
“Did he have many visitors?”
“Well, not to say visitors, but of course there was often someone across from the Manor, and his Lordship seemed to like looking in for a chat sometimes in the early part of the evening when he’d walked across. Then more than once Mr. Piggott came in about something. He and Mr. Ratchett were very thick. Oh, very thick they were. I often said to myself, ‘I wonder whatever a gentlemen like Mr. Ratchett sees in that Piggott’, I said. But there you are. We can’t all think alike, can we? We’re as we’re made and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
“There was the gentleman who is staying at the Duke of Suffolk. Well, I say gentlemen, but we’re not to know, are we? I said to myself when I saw him come, I said, ‘I wonder who this is with his big check overcoat and his red face,’ because I’d never set eyes on him before. You know what it is; you do wonder about anything like that.”
“When was this visit?”
“On the Monday at about five o’clock. He was there half an hour, I should think, all told.”
“How did you know who he was?”
“It was my husband told me when he came home, and we could see the gentleman when he left. ‘Who in the world’s that?’ I asked, because I thought it might be someone coming to work for his Lordship. Well, I wasn’t to know many different, was I? But my husband knew. ‘Staying at the Duke of Suffolk,’ he said; ‘likes a game of darts in the public. Name of Tramper.’ ‘Oh,’ I said. That’s about all in the way visitors. But Mr. Ratchett wasn’t one to want a lot of people morning, noon and night. What I mean to say, he hadn’t a lot to say for himself and didn’t like people who couldn’t keep quiet for five minutes at a time. But there you are. We can’t all be the same, can we? That would never do.”
“When was the last time Lord Penge came to the cottage?”
“Oh, not for some days before the murder. In fact I said to myself, ‘His Lordship hasn’t been across for a day or two,’ I said. ‘The last time he was here was the Sunday before, and Mr. Ratchett was away for the day.’ I remember because it was cold that day and his Lordship never took his coat off. He had a great big coat right down to his heels, and I said to myself, ‘There. I wonder if he’s warm enough with that,’ I said. I popped across to see if he wanted anything, but he said, ‘No, thank you, Mrs. Carker; I’ve just come to consult some files,’ he said. He had a lot of papers on the table. I left in here. I said to myself, ‘Well, he can get on with it,’ I said, ‘I’ve got the supper to get.’ I didn’t hear him go, though. Must have gone out the back way, I suppose, because I don’t miss much. Unless it was after my husband turned the wireless on for the nine o’clock news. We don’t have the television. I don’t like anything like that; it tires you out looking at it.”
“I don’t very much.”
“Some of them’s got it,” said Mrs. Carker, a hint of bitterness in her voice; “those Spotters (he’s the groom up at the Manor) sit looking at it till I don’t know what time, and without a word of a lie the children can scarcely drag themselves to school in the morning, poor mites, from straining their eyes. But my husband says he wouldn’t have one as a gift, not whatever anyone says about the latest thing. We like the old-fashioned wireless. So there you are. It takes all sorts to make a world, I suppose, and you can’t have it both ways.”
“Did Lord Penge often consult papers here?”
“Well, from what I could make out they were doing a book together and parts of it were here and parts over at the Manor. All I can say is, when I told Mr. Ratchett next day his Lordship had been here with the files, as he called them, he didn’t seem surprised, so I suppose it was the ordinary thing. I couldn’t see everything that went on, nor wanted to, for that matter. We’ve all got our own affairs to attend to, whether we like it or not. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and there’s really scarcely time to turn round before there’s another day gone and you haven’t done half you wanted to, and have got no one to blame but yourself. Do you find it a bit chilly in here, sir?”
“No. And you shouldn’t with that beautiful shawl.”
“Poor Mr. Ratchett gave me that. It came over with his mother’s things when she died in a place he used to call Bee A, wherever that is. I said to myself, ‘I’ve heard of bees, but never known a place named after one.’ But it’s the finest wool I’ve ever seen, so light and yet warm; you’re thankful for it in all sorts of weathers.”
“When did Mr. Ratchett lose his mother?”
“Must have been about a year ago she passed on. And you ought to have seen the rubbish they sent home from this Bee A, all packed in old trunks and baskets. There was thousands of papers that had to be gone through and most of them burnt, and all the clothes had been sent as if someone had just packed everything there was. It was enough to give anyone the creeps. You’ve never seen anything like it in all your life. We’d none of us wish to think anyone would see everything we’d got went Anything Happened to us, would we? It isn’t as though we know when it’s coming, is it?”
“Mr. Ratchett spent some time with these papers?”
“He was at them for a long time. Couldn’t put them down. I said to myself, ‘I wish he’d put those old papers down and eat his supper like anyone else. You can’t neglect your meals or else where are you? Right’s right, and no one should go poking about with papers while his tea gets cold.’ But there are none of those papers left here, so far as I know. What wasn’t burnt Mr. Ratchett must have taken away with him, because you can look high and low . . .”
“Thank you. I should like to have a look round.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then. I’ve got my husband’s dinner to cook, and that won’t do itself. That’s where it comes in. We’ve been married all these years, and I’ve never been a minute late with his dinner except once when the last chauffeur went off his head, poor fellow, and came to my back door without a stitch on, talking about the ravens bring him food. I said to myself, ‘It would be better if they brought him at least a pair of pants to pull on.’ But what can you do? You can’t go against nature, and who are we to say? You might as well have tried to fly as to get him to behave himself after that—his mind was quite gone, and if they hadn’t have locked him up he’d have done someone an injury. He was talking about vengeance then, and that’s always a bad sign. Well, this won’t do. Standing here talking while there’s work to be done. You’re going to stay here, sir. That’s right. If you wouldn’t mind just turning the key in the lock when you’ve finished and handing it in to me I’d be ever so obliged. Yes, that chauffeur —Worsdyke was his name—was a sad case, especially when he told his Lordship that God was going to strike him with a thunderbolt and I don’t know what. It was a turn-out for a day or two till they came and took him off to a Home somewhere. Well, I must be getting along. I haven’t started peeling my potatoes yet, and it’s past eleven. Of course I don’t believe his Lordship and Mr. Ratchett were quite that friendly. Not as much as everyone used to say. I don’t say they weren’t together a lot, but it’s not the same thing. Nor her Ladyship either. I mean with his Lordship. I don’t say they didn’t talk when other people were there, but it’s my belief it was another thing when they were on their own. From all accounts she’s come out with a few home truths more than once before now. But then people will say anything. Well, I can’t stay here all day, sir, else I shall never get anything done. I’ll pop over to my house and see about the dinner. It won’t take long, because it’s all ready except the potatoes and that. I said to myself before I came out this morning, ‘There,’ I said, ‘that won’t take long to get ready.’ I’ll see you when you’ve finished, then, sir. There’s nothing locked anywhere.”
Suddenly, as though it could only be done by violent effort of will and the speed of a bolting rabbit, Mrs. Carker was out of the room and Carolus heard the squeak of the iron gate as she hurried from the garden.
But he was not very long in the house. As Mrs. Carker has said, nothing was locked, and it seemed that the reason why, so far as papers or intimate possessions were concerned, was that there was nothing here of the smallest significance or interest. This little house represented a bachelor quarters of a man of some means—his clothes and other personal possessions argued that; of sporting tastes, the guns and rods were evidence; of reference-book mentality, as shewn by the contents of the bookshelves, but of no particular eccentricity to be gathered from the home he had left with every intention of returning to it in a few hours’ time.
The fact that there was nothing here indicative or informative in the matter Carolus was investigating was not, he felt, the result of a sudden impulse of secrecy. Ratchett had not ‘said to himself’, as Mrs. Carker might have done, that you never know, queer things happen, better be careful than sorry, and concealed all that he thought was incriminating, indiscreet or merely personal. It had been a deliberate and long-standing policy. Whether he feared the inquisitiveness of Mrs. Carker or someone else it was impossible to guess, but one thing was certain, while he had left his guns for anyone to steal, he had destroyed or concealed elsewhere every paper which could reveal what kind of man he was, what were his troubles, secrets, sins or intrigues, what kind acts or evil things he did, what were his ambitions and shames. In a word, there was nothing to learn here, and Carolus soon departed.