A Louse for the Hangman, Chapter Four

A Louse for the Hangman


Carolus decided that it was from that moment of a seeming gaffe and general consternation that the whole case changed and became a far uglier thing.  It had started by being some nonsense of Gorringer’s, then turned to fancy as Carolus saw the monstrous estate which Lord Penge kept up, the beautiful, unreal house and gardens and the affectation of a Victorian or Edwardian way of life.  Then, in meeting some of the people who lived and worked here, he had found it hard to remember that only two days ago a man had been murdered in the park, a man who had doubtless been an accepted member of this small community, a friend to the family not, Carolus felt, resented by the staff.  All seemed kind, rather commonplace people:  the chatty valet, the peer himself, is butt-like wife, the sporty elder children, the sicklier younger son and the muscular tutor.  Pleasant, unextraordinary people they had seemed, and in spite of of the surroundings Carolus could have felt at home among them.
That suddenly changed.  The remark itself was nothing, but from the moment it was made Carolus sensed a difference in the atmosphere.  It grew gradually, it came from many minute causes, but it was clearly perceptible.  These people feared something, and it was not, he believed, the writer of the mad letters of warning and minutes.  It was among themselves.  It was in the house, in their daily life and relationships.
It was as though there was a secret among them, or perhaps a conspiracy– something they shared and were desperately anxious to conceal from others.  The children feared their father, Carolus thought, and adored their mother.  The servants were almost too well trained.  The establishment was too smoothly run.  Under that urbanity there must be jealous intrigues.  What Carolus began to realize that first evening was that however normal and nice everyone might seem, there was among them a common cause, and it was sinister and ugly.  It might be fear, it might be hatred, it might be fierce jealousy, it might be madness.
Yet it did not seem certain that it was the result, direct or indirect, of the murder of Michael Ratchett.  Their attitude to this was most odd.  Lord Penge had spoken of it with a calm that must surely have been a mask for deep emotion; the others had not spoken of it at all.  Even the valet had referred cheerfully to ‘this business of Mr. Ratchett’s death’, and Lady Penge had laughed immoderately at the recollection of Mr. Gorringer, but did not seem interested in the reason for Carolus’s presence.
Yet only two nights ago Ratchett had been with them here in the hall waiting to go through to the dining-room, chatting and listening, presumably, a member of the family.  He had been shot in the back hundred or two yards from here, and there had been police inquiries and heavy headlines in national newspapers and there was to be an inquest and probably an arrest.  Yet here they were, behaving as though nothing in the world had happened.
Carolus found himself beside Hermione.
“Tell me,” he said, “what sort of man was your father’s secretary ”
She looked at him quickly.
“Why do you ask?”
“I am curious.  You see, if I may say something frank, I can’t help feeling he was either a complete nonentity or rather unpopular among you.  Nobody seems to remember him.”
Hermione smiled.
“Don’t be deceived.  The edict has gone out from Father that the tragedy is not to be mentioned.  Father says he has quite enough of it from the police without hearing his family talking about it.  I don’t think Michael was unpopular and he wasn’t really a nonentity.”
“Yet . . .”
“Well, he was rather a remote sort of person.  I don’t think anyone but Father really knew him.  He didn’t talk much, but if he said anything it was to the point.  He was one of those people who were very rarely wrong about things, yet he didn’t parade his knowledge.  You only had to ask him how old were the Pyramids or what was dimorphotheca or how to treat a dog that had eaten rat-poison.  He always seemed to know.”
“What age?”
“Younger than Father.  In his forties, I should think.  He had about the same build as father, though.  He wore glasses most of the time, and father, as you know, has wonderful eyesight and doesn’t even use them for reading.  Apart from that at a distance you could mistake one for the other.”
Someone did, thought Carolus, but he made no direct reference to the murder.
They went into dinner, and it was just the sort of meal that might be expected in that house.  Small China plaques stood beside each place at the vast table and on each of these were inscribed the rather intimidating menu.  Potage à la ParmentierFilets de Sole à la CrèmeGigot d’Agneau braisé, Poularde rôtieSalade, Pommes Meringuées, Crème d’AnanasLégumes:  Haricot Vert naturel, Pommes Nouvelles.  Carolus did not recognise every wine, but there was a fine sherry with the soup, a light claret with the Gigot, a glorious burgundy—he thought a Chambertin—with the chicken, and a champagne with the sweet.
Lady Penge and her daughter left them and Chilham set the port decanter beside Lord Penge.  Now, Carolus thought, they must discuss the thing that was on their minds.  Yet there were some minutes of general conversation before Lord Penge said to his eldest son, “The police have found the weapon, Eustace.  Or what seems certain to have been it.  It was that Savage 30·30 I gave Michael two years ago.”
“Good heavens!  How can the . . .  murderer have got hold of that?”
“Not very difficult, I should think,” said Lockyer.  “Michael was awfully careless about his guns.  Besides, he used to leave his cottage open at all times.”
“Odd, wasn’t it?” said Eustace.  “Did you know he was in Field Security during the war?  One would have thought he had keys for everything.”
“I suppose he never mentioned to any of you that the rifle was missing?”
“I scarcely spoke to him at all on Wednesday,” said Eustace.  “Except when I drove him up from the village.”
“I did.  I saw him.”
Ronald’s voice was curiously high-pitched and strained.  He looked straight at Carolus as he spoke.
“I saw him that afternoon.”
“Really?  At what time?” asked Carolus.  Was there an uneasy movement among those present, a flutter of apprehension lest Ronald should say anything indiscreet?  No one spoke.
“It must have been about . . .  five o’clock,” said Ronald in a flat, hopeless voice.  “He was coming into the house.”
“Yes.  I had just dropped him off,” said Eustace.
Carolus spoke rather sharply to Ronald.
“Was he wearing an overcoat?”
Ronald seemed bewildered and looked about him as if for help.  One might have thought that he had prepared answers for most questions but none for this.
“An overcoat?  I don’t know.  I didn’t notice.  He would have had, wouldn’t he?  It was chilly.  Yes, I expect he had an overcoat on.”
“But you don’t remember it?”
“No.  I didn’t notice.  He might have.”
Lord Penge sent the port in rotation for the second time.
“I think I can clear that little problem up for you if it is of any importance.  But first I had better explain to my sons and to Lockyer that you are investigating in this case and that they can answer your questions quite freely.  Yes, Michael must have worn an overcoat that afternoon, because it is still in the hall cloakroom.  You will remember that I told you how he borrowed my old one because it was there in the library and he was going straight across from there by the french windows.  But he could have gone for his own coat and it would probably have saved his life.”
Ronald said:  “Oh God!”
“I wonder if you can be sure of that?” said Carolus to Lord Penge.  “Surely that coat might have been left there another time, the weather being as changeable as it is?”
Lord Penge considered.
“Possibly,” he said.  “But I have the impression that something was said to suggest to me that it was not the case.  Perhaps Michael said, ‘I won’t wait to fetch my coat, but borrow yours’, or something.  I don’t remember him doing so, but I seem to have some reason for thinking that he had brought his own coat to the house that day.  What do you think, Eustace?  You drove him up.”
“I’ve been trying to remember.  I just don’t know.”
“There’s another thing,” said Carolus.  “When he left you to run over to his cottage was he wearing his glasses?”
“Ah, that I can answer quite unequivocally.  He was not.  They are lying on my table at this moment.  He had bifocal lenses.  The lower part was strong for reading, the upper part almost natural.  He was supposed to use them for reading only, but frequently kept them on all day by force of habit.  That afternoon we had been studying small type and his eyes were tired.  He took his glasses off a few minutes before leaving and did not put them on when he went out.”
“Would they have saved his life?” asked Ronald excitedly.
“Quite possibly,” said Lord Penge, “though I should have thought it was too dark that evening for the murderer to distinguish them.”
Ronald turned to Carolus.
“Do you know who it was?”
“No.  I have no opinion yet.”
“Do you think he will try again to kill my father?”
“I think that until he has been identified Lord Penge should be very cautious.”
“But father is cautious, aren’t you, father?” said Eustace.  “The place is stiff with plain-clothes men.”
“Yes.  I am as cautious as I can be, but it’s impossible to be a hundred per cent. secure.  The only hope is to discover as quickly as possible who wants to kill me.  That is what Mr. Deene is going to do.”
Lockyer looked at Carolus in a way that suggested hostility.
“That’s what the police are doing, surely,” he said.
“Oh yes.  But the police were a long while before they took the matter seriously.”
“Wasn’t Mr. Deene?”
Lord Penge smiled.
“We can scarcely blame him,” he said.  “He heard of it through my old friend Gorringer, a very worthy fellow, but not a man one would take too seriously outside his own province.”
Lockyer looked somewhat sulky and refilled his glass.
“I suppose it’s quite irrelevant,” said Carolus, “but I can’t help being curious about Ratchett.  He seems to have left so small a gap in the world.  Had he no parents?”
“None alive,” said Lord Penge.  “His father was the Buenos Aires agent for an number of British manufacturers, among whom, in a small way, then, was our firm.  When I went to Argentina as a young man I went to his home.  Michael was such a small boy at that time that he had been packed off to bed before I arrived.  I don’t think I ever saw him in Buenos Aires, but when he first came to me in England he reminded me of his parents.”
“But he had no relations at all?”
“I believe there were some cousins somewhere, but I don’t think he had anything to do with them.  I believe we were his only friends.  As for leaving a gap, he has left one here, I assure you.  He was not only a good friend but a magnificent secretary, and he has been a sort of uncle to my sons.”
“Rather,” said Eustace.  “But I see what Mr. Deene means.  He wasn’t the kind of person one noticed particularly.  He was just there and now he’s not there.”
“Don’t talk like that!” said Ronald.  “It’s a terrible thing.  I shall never get over it!”
“Was he a particular friend of yours?” Carolus asked the boy.
“No.  No.  It’s not that.  It’s just . . .  it’s terrible.”
“It might have been your father,” Lockyer pointed out.
“It may yet be,” said Ronald.
Lord Penge looked about him.  Carolus could scarcely believe it when he heard him say quietly, without a suggestion of inverted commas round the question, “Shall we join the ladies?”
It was another hour before Carolus could politely go up to bed, and this he found rather trying, because he wanted to be alone and think.  No further reference was made to Ratchett and the conversation was not very entertaining.  Lady Penge was playing patience and there were several small dogs around her.  The drawing-room was too warm and everyone had eaten a little too much.  Not an animated atmosphere.
Carolus found his bedroom almost as over-heated as the rooms downstairs and at once turned off the radiator and opened a window.  The bed was a handsome Dutch one and superbly comfortable, but it was a long time before he could sleep.  He found himself remembering the anxious face of Ronald when he had been addressed, and wondering whether he had been right in sensing a certain disquiet among them all whenever Ronald was about to speak.  The almost majestic detachment of Lord Penge was no less puzzling.  He appeared outwardly to feel little for his dead friend and secretary and shewed no signs of apprehension on his own behalf.  But then he shewed no signs of any emotion, so far as Carolus had seen.  He was a man of quite extraordinary calm.
Carolus slept at last, but was awakened to instant attention.  He had the sensation of having been roused from sleep by some noise or touch or movement which he could not recall; he knew that he had not woken naturally.  There was moonlight in the room, not bright enough to shew him his watch-face but too bright to let him see the luminous figures on it.  He looked at it under the bed-clothes and found that the time was only two-fifteen.  He lay listening attentively.
Presently he heard a sound from under his window.  His room was in the front of the house, and the window looked out on a gravel area behind which lawns ran back to the grassland of the park.  Someone was on the gravel.
Carolus moved cautiously to the window.  He was glad that before sleeping he had opened it and drawn back the curtains.  Slowly he bent forward till he could see the area underneath and the figure of a man there.  At first he thought it was one of the plain-clothes men who, he knew, were stationed in and round the house.  Then he saw a white shirt-front, and knew that it was Lord Penge.
They this did not look very like the caution of which the man boasted.  He was peering about him as though waiting for someone, and in a moment Lockyer, Ronald’s tutor, appeared running from the back of the house.
“He’s not . . .” he began breathlessly.
“No.  He’s out in the park.  I saw him just now.  In the direction of the ponds.”
Without a word Lockyer sprinted away.  Carolus had the impression that it was not the first occasion on which these two had faced this or a similar crisis.  Lord Penge seemed content to wait.
Carolus moved cautiously back to pull on a dressing-gown.  The night was not unpleasantly cold, but there was a little mist rising.  The moon was in now and he could see very little, but he was aware that Penge was still at his post beneath him.
It must have been ten minutes before Lockyer returned, and when he did so he was leading Ronald by the arm.  The moon came out again for a moment as they approached and Carolus saw that the boy was wearing nothing but pyjamas.  He half-expected recriminations from Penge, but heard him address his son kindly, in a low voice.
“Go to bed, my boy.  You’ll get pneumonia.  Lockyer, would you please see he has a hot drink and a hot-water bottle?”
“Father . . .”
“It’s all right, my boy.  Everything’s all right.  No one is angry with you.  Good night.”
Carolus anticipated that, before leaving.  Penge would glance upward to see whether there were any lights on or any sign that he had been observed.  He moved backward and stood completely concealed by the curtain.  Then he heard Penge’s steady, unhurried footsteps on the gravel and no more.