A Louse for the Hangman
It was clear when this officer entered that he had small patience with Lord Penge’s rigorous rules. He was a tall, bald, blue-chinned man of fifty with an intelligent but rather unprepossessing expression. He was carrying a Savage 30·30 rifle.
“I came to shew you this,” he said. “It was found this afternoon and seems likely to be the weapon used to kill Ratchett. I have waited more than an hour to see you, sir.”
“I’m sorry, Inspector.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, I would ask you to give your servants instructions for the future, sir. This murder, in our opinion, requires very prompt investigation. We may lose a great deal by delays. I’m sure you see my point.”
“Certainly. I’ll tell the staff. This is Mr. Carolus Deene, Inspector. I daresay you know his name.”
If the Detective Inspector had heard it he certainly gave no sign of it now. After a nod to Carolus so curt that it was almost rude he turned again to Lord Penge.
“Do you recognize the rifle?
The Savage rifle had recently been in water, but Lord Penge took it from the Inspector and examined it.
“Unless I am very much mistaken,” he said, “this belonged to Michael Ratchett. I gave it to him myself. I have a little shooting-lodge near Achendourock, and my wife, Michael and I were all very fond of a few days’ sport up there.”
“Dear-stalking, you mean, sir? This would be a rifle used for that?”
“Yes. I have one exactly like it. We can turn up the number on it or you can ’phone the makers who supplied it to me a year ago. But I’m almost sure it is Michael’s. Where was it found?”
“In the larger of the two ponds. Not twenty yards from where the body was discovered.”
“Where did Mr. Ratchett keep this rifle, sir? Do you know?”
“Yes. Rather casually, I’m afraid, with other sporting guns in his cottage.”
“He did not mention that it was missing or anything of the sort?”
“No. I cannot remember his ever referring to it. Have you made any other discoveries?”
“We are progressing, sir. I can say no more than that. Now if you would be kind enough to give me the necessary details so that I can ’phone the supplier of the rifle? Ah, thank you.”
“You’ll forgive me, Inspector,” Carolus said. “But I think you should know that I was able to drive straight in this afternoon and be shewn into this room without question. I’ve no doubt you have security arrangements . . .”
“We certainly have. Let me tell you that you would not have entered the park this afternoon if Lord Penge had not told us you were coming and given us a description of your car and the registration number.”
“I got that from Gorringer,” explained Penge.
“It’s impossible with a place this size,” went on the Inspector, his voice betraying a little impatience with persons who dwelt in large country houses surrounded with parkland, “to be sure that no one unauthorized approaches the house. But I think it would be difficult. There is a twenty-four-hours-a-day guard on. We can’t do more than that.”
“It’s much appreciated, I assure you,” said Penge. “A whisky-and-soda, Inspector?”
“I don’t mind,” said Scudd, less ungraciously than the words suggest. “Well, it’s something to have found the weapon. I think the murderer rested it in the fork of that chestnut tree about ten yards behind the place where Ratchett was found.”
“How near the footpath is that?” asked Carolus.
“Oh, not more than half a dozen yards.”
“So that Ratchett would have passed as close as that?”
“Yes. We’re not taking it as absolutely certain that Ratchett was shot in mistake for Lord Penge, you know.”
Carolus said no more in the presence of the Inspector, but when he had gone he asked Lord Penge several questions.
“Did you often wear the overcoat which Ratchett borrowed?”
“Never, except in the garden or park. It was a rather loud tweed I bought in Scotland, a shepherd’s plaid of very pronounced pattern. But oddly enough if I had been crossing the park that night I should almost certainly have had it on. If I had occasion to go across to Michael’s cottage—and that happened fairly often lately—I would nearly always go from this room by the french window. That meant that if I needed a coat it would be this one from the cloakroom here.”
“That suggests that the murderer had a pretty intimate knowledge of your habits.”
“It does, rather.”
“Yet he presumably did not know that you and Ratchett were working together here that afternoon?”
“No. I suppose not. Now is there anything more you would like to ask me? I imagine that as your investigations proceed you’ll have to come to me from time to time for details which no one else can give you. But at this stage what more can I tell you?”
“Nothing, I think.”
“You will stay in the house, I hope? I should like you to meet my family as a guest, you see. They do not know that I have asked you here to make a separate investigation.”
“Thank you very much. I shall be delighted.”
Lord Penge rang again. He had some code with the number of pressures he gave the bell, for this time a young man in a black suit entered.
“My valet will shew you your room, Mr. Deene, and look after your things. Dinner, as you know, is at eight-thirty, but we usually forgather in the hall at about eight.”
Carolus met no one on his way up the vast ornate stairway, and on reaching his room allowed the valet to enter and unpack his bags.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
The valet, a serious young man with large brown eyes and a rather girlish face, seemed ready enough to talk.
“Been here long?”
“Three years. That means I’m almost a new arrival. Most of the staff have worked for ages for his Lordship.”
“Indeed? What does the staff consists of?”
“There’s Mrs Murdoe, the housekeeper. She has her own quarters. A very active lady, sir. Of Scottish origin, I believe. Then there’s old Chilham, the butler. Chilham by name and Chilham by nature, I say. But he’s not a bad old stick, really. He gave me the winner of the Grand National last year.”
“Good. Who else?”
“There’s only one footman, Piggott. Him and I don’t Get On.”
“Really. Why not?”
“Well, I was in the Air Force and he’s ex-Navy. He rather fancies himself at boxing and that. We seem to get into arguments about nothing. And of course this business of Mr. Ratchett’s death has upset everyone. The police asking questions all day and that. Everyone is inclined to be nervy.”
“I can imagine that. Is that the whole indoor staff?”
“There’s the cook. He’s supposed to be Italian. Tomasini his name is. And there are the girls—two of them, both Germans. One’s called Lotti; she’s a big plump thing who has to be told not to sing. The others Frieda. She’s . . . she’s . . .”
Wilpey seemed to recollect himself.
“Oh, she’s all right,” he said hurriedly.
“Tell me, have you ever worked in a house like this before?”
“No, Sir. To tell you the truth I don’t think there can be many houses like this. With an indoor staff like ours, I mean. Who’s going to afford it? Then there are two gardeners, the chauffeur and one groom. I mean, it’s a lot, isn’t it?
“It certainly is.”
“Chilham told me once—between you and me, sir—that his Lordship could only do it by Spending Capital. I mean, there’s all the entertaining, too.
“Oh yes, sir. As a matter of fact d’you know what Piggott came out with this morning? ‘There’s one thing about having a murder in the family,’ he said. ‘It will stop all that bloody entertaining for a bit.’ Fancy talking like that! I mean, Mr. Ratchett was quite nice, really.
“So there’s no one in the house but the family?”
“There’s the Hon. Ronald’s tutor, Mr. Lockyer. Miss Hermione was going to have a friend to stay this week, but she’s had to put her off. I mean, you can’t ask anyone where anyone may be shop any minute, can you? The parents wouldn’t like the idea, I mean.”
“Have you any theory about the murder, Wilpey?”
“Not really a theory, sir. Of course, as you can imagine, we’ve talked about it morning, noon and night. I’m inclined to think it’s someone who’s cunning and crazy at the same time. You know, someone who’s got a thing about killing his Lordship but may otherwise be a sane person.”
“That’s interesting. And of course it enlarges the field, because if you’re right, it could be anyone in the house.”
“In the house? Oh no, sir. I didn’t mean that. It couldn’t be anyone in the house. I mean, I know them all. It couldn’t possibly be. Even Piggott.
“I hope you’re right.”
“Besides, so, we’ve got alibis. The police have gone into all that. I mean, I was pressing his Lordship’s trousers at the time.”
“At what time?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be about seven, isn’t it? That’s what the police say. I mean, Frieda was talking to me all that part of the evening. And Chilham was in Mrs. Murdoe’s sitting-room, playing bezique . . .”
“Did you say bezique? I thought that went out with the last century. Does anyone know the rules?”
“They do, because they were playing it. Sixpence a hundred. Mr. Chilham told me. Piggott was out in the garage with Gribbley, the chauffeur. Lotti was having a nap. So you see.”
“What about the family?”
“The Hon. Eustace and Miss Hermione went down to the stables together after tea. They’re both horse-mad, if you ask me, and it appeared that one of the horses had gone lame that afternoon. They came in at about half-past six, because I saw them, and then they were on the ’phone to the Vet to come up in the morning, which he did. They wanted a drink about seven, and Chilham had to leave his game to give it to them, so they couldn’t have been anywhere near, could they? Then Mr. Ronald was with his tutor in the old nursery, and the cook was hard at work in the kitchen.”
“There’s one person you haven’t accounted for. Where was Lady Penge?”
“Well, to be truthful, sir, I don’t know, but it surely doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, have you ever seen her ladyship? Well, there you are. I think I’ve put out everything you want. There’s a loud-speaker for the radio through in the bathroom.”
“Say that again, would you?”
“Well, I mean you’ve got your set here. It’s a radiogram and there’s a pile of long-playing records in the cabinet. And when you go to your bath you can switch it through. All the rooms have got that.”
“We’ve got the Telly, of course. So’s Mrs. Murdoe. Her ladyship has one and there’s one in the hall, but his Lordship’s not keen. Not for the ordinary programmes, I mean. Of course, on the Commercial there’s Archer and Bucks, so I don’t suppose he wants to see that. Anything more you want, sir, before I go to do his Lordship? Good night, then, Mr. Deene.”
Wilpey went out and Carolus prepared to bathe and change. Loud-speaker in the bathroom, he thought. How would Sir John Vanbrugh like that?
But it was something to keep up this place in a style which, if slightly absurd in 1958, would have been perfectly normal only a century ago. This, Carolus reflected, would have been one of several thousand houses of similar pretensions at any time before the outbreak of the First World War. Now if it were not unique it must be almost so. It could only, as Chilham had said, be done by a reckless expenditure of capital. No income in Great Britain under present-day taxation would support this for a moment. The wages bill alone, and not including the secretary and tutor, could not be much less than a hundred pounds a week. Unless Penge were quite fantastically rich it seemed hard on the next generation to make them watch this disbursement.
There was a falsity about the situation which increased with every hour he spent in the house. A fortune based on the use of cereals as substitutes for game, meat and fish in the making of spreading pastes was being dissipated on the upkeep of an establishment which would have been an anachronism for the last twenty-five years and more. The son of a small grocer who had made himself a millionaire peer was restoring and maintaining a house of real beauty, and doing so without error. A dear-stalking secretary had been shot with his own rifle, presumably by a man who had amused itself in sending threats to the secretary’s employer. There were loud-speakers in the bathrooms of a Vanbrugh house. It was all too contradictory to take seriously. Yet a man had been killed, and though the killer presumably had made a mistake in identity, his intention to murder was obvious enough.
At eight o’clock Carolus went downstairs, and found Lord Penge already in the hall looking into a fire of immense logs which gave cheer to the whole large room. A set of magnificent cut-glass chandeliers lighted it, but it succeeded in having a sort of cosiness in spite of its size.
The first arrival was Lady Penge. She was short and of a shape seen usually among the better-fed classes in Latin countries, her back as straight as a board in spite of its width and upholstery, her front straight too from the ground to the top of her bosom, where it suddenly curved inwards to form a sort of shelf under her chin. It was as though a Dior dress had been fitted on a water-butt out of which a rather jolly face and two fleshy arms were poked. But in spite of this she moved lightly and quickly. She spoke somewhat stertorously, but there was the suggestion of a chuckle in her voice.
She made the conventional inquiries of a hostess, and Carolus replied conventionally. Then she said unexpectedly, “I know who you are. Gorringer’s friend.”’ A fat little hand touched Carolus’s, and he could feel Lady Penge shaking with laughter. “Gorringer!” she spluttered, and almost doubled up with mirth.
“He is rather a headmaster,” admitted Carolus.
“I adore him. He calls me ‘dear lady’ and talks to Arthur about his responsibilities.” She was interrupted by the entrance of a slim, freckled girl, rather fey-looking, but pretty in a dryad sort of way. “This is my daughter, Mr. Deene.”
“We’re not supposed to know you’re investigating, but of course we all do. Any clues?”
“Lots. There always are.”
They were joined by a handsome, open-air-looking young man, not too intelligent-looking, but naturally amiable, probably popular and certainly what used to be called ‘a good sport’.
“My brother Eustace. This is Carolus Deene. Oh, and here’s Ronald. You’ve met us all now.”
Ronald was about seventeen, thin and rather petulant in expression. He looked as though he had suffered from a good deal of ill-health. His eyes were pale blue and seemed weak, peering narrowly from behind spectacles.
“Yes. I must have,” agreed Carolus.
A prematurely bald, bull-necked, sandy-haired man of twenty-six came across with the stumping walk of the muscle-bound.
“Mr. Lockyer. Mr. Deene. That is the last. We call him Lucky Lockyer, though God knows he’s not, poor devil, having to tutor Ron.”
“Oh. Any other nicknames?”
“Mummy’s always been Annie Oakley.”
There was one of those sudden ugly silences which give to a remark just made a disproportionate significance.
“Why?” went on Hermione gaily. “Oh, didn’t you know? She was supposed to be the finest markswoman of her time. Even now she’s incredible. She could shoot an apple off a man’s head at fifty yards, I believe. If she had to, I mean. What’s on what on earth’s the matter with you all? Have I said something?”