A Louse for the Hangman
Chilham was in the hall.
“Your pardon, sir, but his Lordship would be pleased if you would go to the library.”
“And . . . I ventured to wonder, sir, whether there might be any matter you would wish to discuss with me or Mrs. Murdoe, the housekeeper.”
“There is nothing specific, I think.”
Carolus had the impression that Chilham was relieved at this.
“On the other hand, I dare say it would be helpful to me if we could have a chat,” Carolus added.
“With pleasure, sir. I need scarcely say that any information we have is at your disposal. The police questioned both me and Mrs. Murdoe in the most perfunctory way.”
“When can I see you?”
“Mrs. Murdoe ventures to suggest that you might like to take a cup of tea in her room this afternoon.”
“I should be delighted.”
“At about four o’clock, sir?”
“Fine. I’ll see you then.”
Carolus found Lord Penge alone, and apparently in his usual quite good spirits.
“Two things have turned up,” said Penge, “which I think I should tell you at once. Inspector Scudd has been to see me this morning. He has no details yet, but knows enough to shew that you were right. There were no strange fingerprints on the medicine bottle and the contents contain sufficient poison to make one dose of the medicine a lethal one. What do you think of that?”
“Interesting,” said Carolus.
“Do you think that someone entered this room by the window and poisoned it?”
“It looks like it. On the other hand, how could anyone be sure he would not be disturbed?”
“As to that, you know my strict rule that no one shall enter the room during the afternoon and early evening? He would surely only have to know where I was to be certain that no one would be here.”
“Not necessarily. If the household knew that you were not here to be disturbed, anyone might have come in. He could not be sure of having enough time in the room to do what he intended.”
“No. I see that.”
“Where, in fact, were you? Do you happen to remember?”
“I was here to about a quarter to seven. Then I decided to go up to change. I did not wait for Chilham to bring my sherry and medicine, though he usually brought them about that time. I went to my bedroom . . .”
“Where is that?”
“Exactly over this room.”
“Did you switch on the lights?”
“I must have done. I remember that Piggott had not yet drawn the blinds, and I went to the window for a moment to look out across the park. I am, as I have told you, very fond of my home and saddened by what is happening in it.”
“So you would have been visible to anyone watching from outside?”
“I suppose so. Yes. It didn’t occur to me. It was while I was there that I heard my daughter scream and came down at once.”
“I see. It makes it possible that someone waited till Chilham had been to the library, then entered, knowing that you were not there. Did anyone in the house see you on your way upstairs?”
“No one, so far as I know.”
“Wilpey was not here?”
“The library window is puzzling. Why on earth would it have been left open? The intruder must have been anxious that nothing should indicate his visit.”
“There is a very natural explanation. Try to close the window for yourself.”
Carolus went across, pushed up the window and began to draw it down. At the point it had reached on the previous night it stuck fast.
“I have intended for some time to call the estate carpenter for that,” said Penge. “It always sticks there. It can be closed with some difficulty, but a man pulling it down from outside would probably not be able to get it farther, particularly if he was in a hurry.”
“There is another point, though,” said Carolus. “If someone entered the library from outside and poisoned your medicine, surely his first thought would be escape. Why on earth should he have wanted to peer in at the morning-room window?”
“For that, I own, I have no explanation. It seems an insane thing to do. But then, as you know, I am more than half convinced that we’re dealing with a madman.”
“That may be, too. However, Lord Penge, I think you should face the possibility that someone in the house did this and opened the window to suggest that it was an intruder.”
“You know that I cannot and will not accept that possibility. Besides, it leaves your objection on it. If it was done by someone in the house, why should he have trouble afterwards to go out—presumably by these french windows—and peer in at the room next door?”
“Unless it was to demonstrate further that it was an outsider. I own that is rather unsatisfactory, because his action tonight—as in fact it did—warn you that someone had entered the library and tampered with your medicine. However, that kind of guesswork won’t help us much. What was the other thing you wanted to tell me?”
“Oh, that. In view of your questions about my former chauffeur Worsdyke, I have made inquiries. He was released from the mental home with a clear bill of health on February 26, just a week before the first threatening letter was received.”
“Was he? Do you know where he has been since?”
“At his home at Eastbourne, about twenty miles from here. He has apparently behaved quite normally, so far as is known.”
“May I ask you how you obtained this information?”
“I sent Lockyer over to Eastbourne to his home this morning. He did not see Worsdyke, who was in bed, but he saw his wife.”
“Worsdyke has not been seen in this vicinity?”
“There is no report of it.”
At lunch that day Carolus noticed that for the first time the family was thoroughly subdued. They had probably been told, he supposed, about the attempt to poison Lord Penge, and it had brought home to them the gravity of the situation more effectively than the death of Ratchett. Scarcely a word was spoken over the lobster salad, the vol-au-vents or the lamb cutlets, and Lockyer, whose manner in the presence of Carolus was usually surly, seemed to be the only one doing justice to the meal.
Carolus found it melancholy to be with unhappy people whose anxieties he could as yet do nothing to allay, and it was with some relief that at four o’clock that afternoon he followed Chilham up to the housekeeper’s sitting-room. He had not much hope of helpful information, but experience had taught him that this often came from the most unexpected quarters.
Here at last was a break from the true-to-type conventionality of the people he had met at Highcastle Manor. Mrs. Murdoe was not an intimidating woman in black with a bunch of keys, but a little, well dressed bright person in her early fifties who welcomed him with a rather pretty smile. Chilham, too, had lost some of his pomposity, and the three of them were soon chatting amicably.
“Perhaps we ought to tell you at once,” said Mrs. Murdoe, “that if it had not been for what has happened, Mr. Chilham and I intended to announce our engagement this week.”
Carolus congratulated them, and the housekeeper went on:
“I’ve been a widow for nearly twenty years and Alec for eleven, and whether we stay here or not we want to finish our lives in partnership. I have no children and Alec’s only son is grown up and has his practice as a doctor, so apart from our work we have no ties. But of course that’s not what you want us to talk about.”
Carolus, who was still a little stupefied by the realization that ‘Alec’ referred to Chilham, wanted them for the present to talk of anything that occurred to them.
“I have been with Lady Penge since I was a young girl,” said Mrs. Murdoe, who spoke with no trace of Scots accent. “My husband was a warehouseman in the True-Lime works which belonged to Lady Penge’s father. Lady Penge was an only daughter, and I was more a companion to her than anything else. Then when she got married I came here with her to run the house, and I’ve done so ever since. Miss Allie was always a jolly, friendly person who liked a joke. It’s only lately she seems to have got a bit more serious. Her father, Sir Albert Nutter, was just the same, and when he was Lord Mayor of London that year he gave everyone a laugh by the things he did—having squeakers put on the chairs at the Mansion House banquet and I forget what else. Of course, he was a very, very rich man, and it all came to Miss Allie—Lady Penge, I mean—and that was before death duties were as bad as they are now.”
Mrs. Murdoe had poured tea from a silver teapot and paused to ask Carolus about his requirements and sugar and milk. But afterwards she continued:
“Yes, I suppose it would be hard to say which had most, she or Lord Penge, but it’s certain that only between them could they afford to keep up this place. If you could see what it’s like, Mr. Deene, when we’re entertaining! Well, my job is like being manageress of a great hotel in which none of the guests are given bills. I shan’t be telling secrets if I say that last year Alec’s income from tips alone was over a thousand pounds. But Lord and Lady Penge share the expense of it all, mostly for the children’s sake, because of course you know they don’t Get On.”
“I had gathered that.”
“Such a pity! It has been much worse of recent months, and I always used to say—didn’t I, Alec?—that Ratchett had something to do with it. Don’t ask me what, but whenever he came into the picture there were ructions.”
“Really? You mean . . .”
“I don’t really know what I mean, but Alec thought the same.”
“It did seem that Ratchett was a cause of discord between them. But I don’t think I can be more definite than that.”
“Ratchett doesn’t seem to have been popular.”
“He wasn’t with me,” said Mrs. Murdoe firmly. “I never liked him.”
“He paid all the wages?”
“Yes,” said Chilham.
“Yes, always. His Lordship had an account at a bank in Hastings, and Ratchett went out once a week to draw the money. Though of course Mrs. Murdoe and I were paid by the month.”
“Had you ever reason to have a cheque on his private account?”
“I haven’t personally, but I’ve seen cheques of his several times. Some months ago, for instance, he asked me to pay his garage account as I was going into Hastings.”
“Where did he bank?”
“At the Royal and Colonial Bank in Bexhill.”
Mrs. Murdoe had listened to this, and now prepared to resume.
“Tell me about the evening of the murder,” suggested Carolus.
“We both have an hour or two to ourselves between five and seven, usually. Alec has served tea and has no duties till he takes Lord Penge’s sherry down at a quarter to seven. Anything that has to be taken to the library when they were working was always left on the little table outside, because there were strict orders that they shouldn’t be disturbed. Alec took the tray and left it there at a quarter to seven, and came back here to finish our game of bezique.”
“A good game?”
“Fascinating. Then at about seven o’clock the house telephone went and Hermione asked Alec to bring drinks for her and Eustace to the morning-room. He went down and was gone for some time . . . ”
“About a quarter of an hour, I should think,” said Mrs. Murdoe.
“I was chatting with Miss Hermione,” said Chilham.
“Was Eustace there?”
“No, I understood he had gone out to the stables. They were both worried about one of the horses.”
“He didn’t reappear while you were there?”
“No. Then the next thing we knew was Lord Penge on the ’phone saying that Ratchett had been murdered in the park.”
“Would you mind telling me what you were talking to Hermione about?”
Chilham gave Carolus a quick, shrewd look.
“I think you know already, sir. She and my son wish to become engaged. My son is a doctor,” Chilham added with a hint of pride in his voice.
“Thank you. I did know something of that, but I’m glad you told me. Now one last question—perhaps the most important. Had there been any calls that afternoon?”
“No one had been admitted, but at about six o’clock Piggott asked me to take over duty in the hall for a while. He had to see his friend Gribbley about something. While I was there a most undesirable sort of individual arrived and asked to see Mr. Ratchett.”
“Did he give a name?”
“How had he come up to the house?”
“On foot, apparently. There was no sign of a vehicle.”
“A good walk from the village.”
“Yes. He said he had been to Mr. Ratchett’s cottage but received no reply.”
“You told him, of course, that he could not see Ratchett?”
“Certainly. After a minute or two he made off. I may be wrong, but I thought his walk was a little uncertain.”
“Thank you both very much for being so helpful. Do you think I could get my own car out? I don’t want to disturb Gribbley on Sunday afternoon.”
“Lord Penge wouldn’t like that, sir. I’ll ’phone and tell Gribbley to bring it round.”
Within fifteen minutes Carolus knocked on the door of the lodge in which Mrs. Carker lived. She was once more alone.
“Carker having gone up to the house, as the saying is, to do his frames and hot-house as usual on a Sunday afternoon. I said to myself as soon as I saw your car, I said, ‘It’s that gentleman that was here the other day asking this, that and the other about Mr. Ratchett.’ Come in, sir, if you’ve got a minute, because there’s a nip in the air and we can’t stand here being blown about, can we? Was there something else you wanted to know?”
“Yes, Mrs. Carker. You remember telling me about the man staying at the Duke of Suffolk who came to see Mr. Ratchett one afternoon?”
“Him? Yes, I remember him, though I often wonder how it is we call to mind one and not another.”
“You didn’t tell me that he came again on the afternoon on the day on which Mr. Ratchett was killed?”
“There! I knew there was something! You can’t keep everything in your head, can you? I said to myself only yesterday, ‘I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten to tell that gentleman,’ though what it was I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Yes, that’s right. It must have been close on six or thereabouts but I heard him over there, knock, knock, knock on the door till I said to myself, ‘He’ll break that down if he’s not careful, and that will be a nice thing.’ So I put my head out of the door and said, ‘There’s no one in,’ I said, ‘because Mr. Ratchett’s at the Manor with his Lordship and won’t be back till I don’t know what time, so you may as well save yourself the trouble of knocking,’ I said. I might have thought to tell you that before, only there you are. You can’t always do right, can you? I mean it would be a nice world if you could, but we’re none of us perfect, and it must have slipped out of my mind, as you might say.”
“You saw no one else that afternoon?”
“No, I can’t say I did, but of course that doesn’t mean anything, because I had my hands full with what with one thing and another, and when I’m working I don’t really know what is going on. A whole army might have marched in without me knowing any better, so there’s no more to be said, unless you wanted to ask me about anything else, when I’m sure I’d only be too pleased.”
“Yes. There is another thing. What keys had Mr. Ratchett.”
“Keys? Well. It’s funny that you should ask. He had two lots. There was his keys he always took with him here, there and everywhere. They were on a ring and were only his door key, the key of the front door of the manner and his key for his car. Then he had another lot which he used to keep at home. To tell you the truth, I’ve got them here. I said to myself when I saw them after he’d gone, I said, ‘Those oughtn’t to be lying about for any Tom, Dick or Harry to pick up, because you never know what they’re the keys of,’ so I put them in my bag when I was in there, meaning to send them up to the Manor by Carker as soon as the moment came as you might say. So perhaps you’d like to take them now, sir, and I’m sure I’d be ever so grateful.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Carker.”
“It’s a pleasure, I’m sure, sir. I’ll just pop upstairs and get them, then I shall have them off my hands. Are you finding out who it is wants to kill his Lordship? I do hope you do, because we can’t go on like this from one day to another, not knowing what’s going to happen next, as the saying is. I mean, you don’t know what to think, do you? Well, I’ll just go and get those kids. Only it gives you the fidgets knowing there’s someone about and not knowing who it is. I said to myself only yesterday, ‘It’s not like it used to be,’ I said, ‘before all this started, upon my word it isn’t.’ I shan’t be a minute getting them.”
When at last Carolus received the keys he examined them long and thoughtfully, then put them in his pocket. His leave-taking should have been a lesson to Mrs. Carker, for he rose, said good-bye, and went.