A Louse for the Hangman, Chapter One

A Louse for the Hangman


Leo Bruce

Perhaps the strangest and certainly the most mystifying of Carolus Deene’s cases came to him in an unexpected way.  It was recommended to him by Mr. Gorringer, the headmaster of the school at which Carolus taught history.
Mr. Gorringer, a large and important-looking man, appreciated the ability of Carolus to badger and cajole his pupils through examinations.  He also knew that the book Carolus had written, Who Killed William Rufus? And Other Mysteries of History, had brought a certain éclat to the name of the Queen’s School, Newminster.  He was in no way dismayed by Carolus’s vulgarly large private income and Bentley Continental motor-car.  But it is approved of this history masters excursions into criminal investigation.  They had more than once given the school a kind of publicity with which Mr. Gorringer considered unsuitable.  As headmaster of a minor public school he was very sensitive on this point and usually felt alarm when there came to his ears a rumour that Carolus was taking an interest in some recent murder.  These ears of the headmaster’s were large and apparently sensitive organs, since everything reached their great, red-rimmed and hairy cavities sooner or later.
Yet in the Highcastle case it was Mr. Gorringer himself who suggested to Carolus that he should investigate.  About a week before the end of an Easter term he broached the matter.  Carolus was making his way to the Common Room when the school porter, breathing heavily and looking more bad-tempered than usual, caught him up.
“He wants you,” he said.  This, to Carolus, was perfectly explicit and he would have left the matter at that, but Muggeridge, the porter, had a grievance.  “I was just having my tea,” he grumbled.  “He’s always ringing that blasted bell.  I don’t know.”
The last three words were spoken with something like despair.
“All right, Muggeridge.  I’ll go across.”
Carolus found Mr. Gorringer at his large and very solid Victorian writing-table which faced the door.
“Ah, Deene,” he said.  “I wanted a word with you.  Please sit down.”
Mr. Gorringer paused, coughed and joined the tips of his fingers.
“I have received a letter,” he announced at last, “from Lord Penge.”
“Arthur Briggs, wasn’t he?  Bloater paste and so on?”
“It is true that the family name of Lord Penge is Briggs,” admitted Mr. Gorringer, “and that among his multifarious financial interests has been the manufacture of certain table delicacies of high-quality.  Since he was raised to the peerage, however, his activities have been largely political or connected with public charities.”
“They all come to that,” said Carolus irritatingly.
Mr. Gorringer appeared to ignore the remark.
“My friendship with Lord Penge dates back to our undergraduate days,” he said.  “As I say, he has just written to me, and I propose to shew you the letter.”
He handed to Carolus a large sheet of deckle-edged writing-paper stamped with a coronet and bearing the address Highcastle Manor, Sussex.
“Dear Flippers,” Carolus was astounded to read.
“You did say it was addressed to you?” he questioned the headmaster, studiously keeping his glance from those robust ears.
Mr. Gorringer stretched out a hand for the letter.  It seemed that he had forgotten some details of its terminology.
“On second thoughts I will summarize its contents for you.  Lord Penge has been greatly perturbed of late by the receipt of a number of anonymous letters threatening his life.  He has summoned the police, but finds that they do not treat the matter as being of sufficient gravity.  They inform him that it is quite a common thing for public men to receive such letters from cranks.  They are investigating, of course, but Lord Penge is not satisfied.  In a matter so vital he feels that no effort should be spared to discover the centre of these letters.  He has therefore written to me.”
“Why to you, headmaster?”
“It happened that at a recent public dinner I sat next to Lord Penge and gave him some account of your interest in crime.  I even went so far as to outline one or two of your discoveries.  He wishes me to let you know that he will give you an interview tomorrow, Sunday, at Highcastle Manor.”
“I’m sorry.  I’m playing golf on Sunday.”
“That you can of course postpone.  Lord Penge says it will be convenient for you to call any time between three and five.”
Carolus stood up.  “Tell him I can’t make it, will you, Headmaster?  The case doesn’t interest me in the least.”
“Mr. Deene,” said the headmaster solemnly.  “You have repeatedly embroiled yourself in matters far better left to the officials trained to deal with them.  You have positively sought out the most sordid crimes as subjects fir for investigation.  Yet when you are approached by a peer of the realm you to feel no interest in the matter.  Is not that perverse, to say the least of it?”
“I don’t think so.  I’m afraid you and I don’t always see things in the same light, Headmaster.  Now I wanted to speak to you about the Junior Sixth . . .”
“The Junior Sixth is of less consequence than the matter we’re discussing, Mr. Deene,” said Mr. Gorringer surprisingly.  “I must make known to you my wish, my very earnest wish, that you should undertake an investigation in this case.  You surely do not intend to shew the same callousness as the police force?  Suppose that the writer of these letters fulfils his threat and Lord Penge falls a victim to him, you would almost have his blood on your hands!”
“Come now, Headmaster.  Don’t let’s be melodramatic about it.  Is there any theory to account for these letters?  Any guess at why they are sent?”
“None whatever, I believe.  Lord Penge himself considers that the writer is insane.”
“Why, I wonder?  Does he think it impossible that a sane man should want to kill him?”
“It would seem improbable.  Lord Penge is almost universally respected and liked.  Indeed, one might say beloved.  But apart from that, in one of the letters the writer says something to the effect that he wouldn’t mind a few years at Broadmoor for the pleasure of eliminating Lord Penge.  You perceive the seriousness of it?”
“Yes.  It does sound a bit tricky.  But not my cup of tea, Headmaster.  Really not.  I am sorry not to oblige you, but if I do anything during the coming holidays it will be that Chatham affair.”
“Mr. Deene, is it possible that you’re contemplating anything so wholly unsuited to your position?  I have glanced at newspaper accounts of the crime to which you refer:  a woman of low morals found in the gutter in a notorious district of a naval port, her throat cut and her shoes missing . . .”
“Yes.  It’s the shoes that make it interesting.  Now why do you suppose they were missing?”
“I would not venture to surmise or to give my attention to such a detail.  If you, Mr. Deene, intend to speculate in that very sordid field while my old friend and a most distinguished man is murdered, I abandon all hope of appealing to your conscience.  I . . .”
The telephone rang.
“Yes,” the headmaster said; “yes indeed.  No, unfortunately he has other unavoidable commitments, he tells me.  I will.  Of course.  Really?  Oh, I agree that is most alarming.  Most alarming.  You have?  You are cautious, I trust?  Yes, I will speak to him again.  Good-bye.”
Mr. Gorringer replaced the receiver and turned to Carolus.
“That was Lord Penge,” he said superfluously.  “A most disturbing thing has happened.  He has received another of these letters, and this one, instead of being posted in London, like the previous ones, was posted in Highcastle itself.”
“Coming nearer home, eh?  Is Penge scared?”
“He rarely betrays emotion in speech or manner, but I imagine anyone would be.  I have told him I will approach you again, Deene.”  Carolus noticed the abandonment of the formal ‘Mr.’ and knew that the headmaster was about to become ponderously man-to-man.  “Let us cease this somewhat pointless argument.  I trust I may tell Lord Penge that you will call on him tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid I should be quite useless to him if I did.  I’m not really interested in any case till there’s a corpse, you see.  Your friend needs a good bodyguard, if he needs anything.  That’s not my line.  If you offered me a murder to investigate I would go to see the man, but not for anonymous letter-writing.”
Mr. Gorringer rose to his feet.
“I find that heartless, and insofar as Lord Penge is a friend of mine, your reply seems almost a personal affront to your headmaster.  I shall not ask you again.  If there is a corpse at Highcastle it should trouble your conscience for the rest of your life.  No.  Not a word more.  The matter is closed.”
“Quite.  Now the Junior Sixth . . .”
Yet in spite of his refusal to concern himself with the menaces to Lord Penge, Carolus that evening looked up the peer’s name in various reference books and read details of his career with close attention.
After Briggs was born in 1890, the son of Alfred and Rachel Briggs.  It would seem that his father was already a substantial man of business, for Arthur received an education which, though not as expensive as could be found, was none the less that of a son of well-to-do parents.  He was sent to a preparatory school at Eastbourne, then to St. John’s, Leatherhead, and had taken the degree of B.Sc. at the University of London.
After that he spent two years in Buenos Aires ‘for business experience and research’, returning to England for the First World War.  He was pronounced medically unfit for military service and at once began to devote himself to his family business.
It was from no public reference book, but on his own memory of a story told him some years before, that Carolus knew what form this ‘devotion’ had taken.  His father had several grocery shops and a small factory in Newington Butts, where he made certain potted meats and fish paste.  His trademark, which depicted an archer shooting a deer, had given a name to his products, though Archer and Buck’s meat pastes were not yet widely known.
Young Arthur, working with a chemist, made a discovery which has since revolutionized the industry.  It was that to use any substantial quantity of the meat or fish after which the paste is touchingly called in the manufacture of it is sheer wilful waste.  Cereals can do duty for everything from boar’s head to partridge, from salmon to chicken and ham, and provided the product can be proved to contain some minute proportion of the fish or beast which gives it a name, and is suitably coloured and flavoured, all is well.  This enabled Arthur Briggs not only to cut the costs of his productions down to a fraction of their previous total, but also to add some enticing items to his lists.  His Wild Duck Paste and Venison Pâté caught the purchasers’ eye by their titles, his pastes of Lobster, Ptarmigan, Quail and Golden Pheasant scarcely less so.
But apart from these exotic-sounding products, he was able to sell to a needy country during the First World War such vast quantities of manufactured foodstuffs that before his business was struck by the calamity of the Armistice he had fourteen factories working at full blast and was a millionaire.  His father had been wise enough to retire soon after Arthur came into the business, and died in 1920 at the large, gloomy house in Penge which Arthur had bought for him.
For some years after the old man’s death Arthur continued to live with his mother at Penge, and it was during this time, indeed before he was forty, that he purchased for himself a peerage.  Six years later he married Alithia, the only daughter of Sir Albert Nutter, a fellow manufacturer of foodstuffs whose career had been scarcely less spectacular than his own and of a similar kind, for to Nutter the world owes the discovery that shredded mangle-wurzels obviate the necessity for more than a flavouring of oranges and lemons in orange and lemon squashes.
Carolus found from his reference book that there were two sons and one daughter of this marriage, and that Lord Penge’s heir was Eustace Briggs, his eldest son.  There was an impressive list of functions and achievements set down for Lord Penge.  He had been a member of the Agricultural Marketing Facilities Committee, Chairman of the Food Preservatives Enquiry Commission, Honorary Liveryman and later Master of the Worshipful Company of Spice Merchants, Alderman of the Ward of Fleet and one of Her Majesty’s Lieutenants of the City of London, Member of the Council of the Royal London Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society, and a great deal more.  He had published a book, Purity in Food Preservation.  His address was given as Highcastle Manor, Sussex (Telegraphic Address:  Pengecastle).  His club was the Garrick.
Carolus did not find this record inspiring and he still felt no curiosity in the matter of the threats Lord Penge was receiving.  He agreed with the police that such things were not unusual, particularly towards a man who had risen by the way of this one.
But a few days later, indeed on the last day but one of the term, he was astonished on looking from the window of his classroom during a lesson period to see the headmaster coming across the quadrangle at a pace that could almost be called a run, gowned, but without his mortar-board.  In a moment he was in Carolus’s classroom.
“Deene!” he called.  There was none of the usual “One moment, Mr. Deene, if you could spare it”.  The headmaster’s monosyllable was stern and impatient.  Carolus left the classroom with him. 
Mr. Gorringer was almost incoherent.
“That matter at the other day . . . Lord Penge . . . a most terrible thing has happened . . .”
“They’ve got him?” queried Carolus calmly.
“No, no.  Thank heavens, not that—at least as yet.  No, his secretary was fortunately mistaken for him.  He was wearing Lord Penge’s overcoat, in fact.  Shot, Deene, shot!  Dead, man!  And in the very grounds of Highcastle Manor!”
“Did you say ‘fortunately’, Headmaster?”
“I meant—well, comparatively speaking in the circumstances.  The nation cannot afford to lose men of Lord Penge’s calibre.  It is tragic, of course, about the secretary.  A very worthy fellow, I believe.  But imagine how you would have felt if it had been Lord Penge!”
“Yes.  I can imagine that,” said Carolus.
Mr. Gorringer was unaware of any irony.
“You must go now, of course,” he said.  “You must go without delay.  The murderer will not make the same mistake twice.”
“Scarcely likely,” agreed Carolus.  “The secretary will presumably be buried.”
“You understand perfectly what I mean.  You will leave for Highcastle tomorrow?”
“I’m still not keen, Headmaster.  My last case concerned a man shot in a park, if you remember.  I think I should prefer the Chatham job.”
“Deene, you said yourself that if there were a corpse . . .  Come, man, will you go?”
“I suppose so.  There is no doubt that the secretary was murdered?”
“Oh, none.  He was shot in the back.”
“There has been no arrest?”
“Very well, Headmaster.  I’ll go.”
Mr. Gorringer slightly bowed his head.
“It may be that I shall join you at Highcastle later,” he said solemnly.  “Meanwhile, with all my heart I wish you success.”