Police Station, Cadblister Parva
The Inquest was finally over. It had not been efficiently or even competently run, but after much labour, it had finally penetrated to the Coroner’s (in the opinion of Inspector Crowner) negligible intelligence that, contrary to village rumour (with which the Coroner was not even up to date), they did not have the murderer in custody, and that they did need to do further investigating. Once the Coroner had finally grasped this, he’d taken another ten minutes to adjourn the inquest for the customary three weeks.
Now, Inspector Crowner sat back in the large chair behind the desk at the police station. He’d made more room in the small office by placing seats for Constable Wilkins and the three constables from Cadblister Magna inside of the holding cell.
Sergeant Mug sat across the desk from Inspector Crowner. Arrayed before Mug were many different notebooks (each with a different colour of cover), pens, pencils, a map of the village, and a few as yet incomplete charts of timelines and alibis.
“Let’s go over what we know,” said Crowner, sighing heavily. “Futile, of course, but I feel so damn dumb after that Inquest, I really don’t think I am capable of more useful cerebral activity.” He stared balefully at the constables in the cell. “Brain-work,” he translated, helpfully.
“Yes, sir.” This was Constable Wilkins.
“Right,” Crowner continued. “First, a Fact, probably irrelevant but you never know, from The Past. I must be utterly sunken into senility, for I’ve only just remembered it. There was a death- a murder- in Cadblister Hall about 30 years ago. In fact, that Lord Cadblister was murdered, too. A hush,” he added, eying the constables maliciously, “falls over the crowd of blue-bottles.”
“Sir?” Said Constable Garrick, a red-faced man who seemed always to be sweating.
“Nothing. Attend, please, for I am about to tell a story. Thirty years ago, old Lord Cadblister was murdered, seemingly by his son Richard Crabtree. Suspicion had fallen on Richard- who is, please note, the brother of our Lord Cadblister- almost from the first. He had motive, means, opportunity, all of it. Then, ten days after the murder, Richard Crabtree fled the country. He fled, presumably trying to get to the United States, on the ill-fated ship the H.M.S. Miseryguts. When that ship got to just about the middle of the ocean, it sank. And, since Richard Crabtree wasn’t one of the handful of assorted Americans all clinging to the same mast-head who were the only survivors, Richard Crabtree was declared dead. And a murderer. Very tidy. Case closed.” He shrugged. “Old Inspector Sneed told me about the case when I was his Sergeant, to pass the time on an especially tedious train journey.” He turned to Sergeant Mug. “All my anecdotes are similarly relevant. Forget even one, you’ll never be Assistant Commissioner.” He turned back to the constables seated in the lock-up. “The only person who was here then and is here still- save perhaps our murder victim, no-one seems to know for sure if he was around or not- is the lady they call Aunt Theodolinda.”
“The old lady in the coma,” said Mug, gloomily.
“Indeed. Right. I think those hair-pins we found in the lane were hers, by the way. Women like to match that type of pin with their hair-color. These pins were gray. And, since we know this Aunt Theodolinda was wandering around in the snowstorm on the night of the crime, she probably shed them quite innocuously. Unless, of course, she herself is the killer. Unlikely. Mug!”
“Interviews! Who have we talked to so far?”
Mug consulted one of his notebooks. Not that he had to, mind, but he didn’t want to go giving the local men inferiority complexes. Inspector Crowner would take care of that. “I have talked to Randall Grudge, Madeline Grudge, and Verity Meadows; you did the Viscount and Lady Belinda, and then funked interviewing Lady Cadblister…”
“She was not at home!”
“Or Not At Home, sir. You let that butler snub you, you did.”
“Someday, Mug, I shall throttle you. She wasn’t at home. I saw her going off into the woods not ten minutes before I asked Sneakfork to take me to her. I wanted to know if Sneakfork knew his mistress was absent. He did.”
Mug whistled. “Clever!”
“Yes.” Inspector Crowner looked complacent. “Go on.”
“In terms of the Crabtree household, then, we have yet to talk to Lady Cadblister or that nephew of hers, the Honourable Percival Neville Bloater.”
Crowner looked at the three constables from Cadblister Magna. “Remember, children,” he said, “Lord Cadblister is our murder victim. His wife is Lady Cadblister. He has three children that we know of, two legitimate, one not. Lady Belinda and the Viscount- Gerald Crabtree, who is now Lord Cadblister – are the legitimate children. Randall Grudge is the illegitimate one. Call him a bastard, he seems to like it. Ask Constable Wilkins about the dramatis personae if you get confused. He is our best source for local knowledge.” Constable Wilkins, who’d been looking deflated and sullen since the Inspector had made him release Miss Verity Meadows, suddenly sat up straight in his chair. “All right, Mug,” Crowner continued, “what did you gather from your interviews?”
“From Miss Mad Grudge-”
“What?” Crowner was, for once, startled.
“She likes people to call her Mad, sir. Or Maddie.”
“Oh. Go on.”
“From her, I learned damn-all, except that she’s a woman who goes in for drama. Floods of tears, ‘oh what will become of me now?’ You know the sort of thing.”
“I do.” Crowner looked disgusted. “Nothing about the quarrel she and Randall had with Lord Cadblister on Christmas Eve?”
“Nothing but a pack of lies, sir.”
“First, there was no quarrel, only a cozy little family party. Second, the village has always hated her, and they are all lying when they say there was a quarrel. Third, Lord Cadblister was vexed because of the village meeting and was just telling her about it, and shouting, on account of being vexed. Fourth, it was probably Lady Cadblister as did the killing. Fifth, Lord Cadblister made a new will, leaving Randall everything. Sixth, if the will isn’t found, it is because the wicked Crabtrees have destroyed it. Seventh, there is no justice for a woman on her own in this cold, hard world. Eighth-”
“Yes. Is this eighth point pertinent, or by way of further character study?”
“Character study, sir.”
“Then skip it.”
“With pleasure, sir. As for Randall Grudge, he says there was a quarrel- and that is all he’ll say. He says it is none of my damn business. As for the night of the crime, he says he went up to Cadblister Hall to either continue quarreling with his father or to make it up, he hadn’t decided which. He knocked, got no answer, and went home again. No dead Lord Cadblisters on the lane either time. He believes that it took him only ten minutes, round-trip, and that he must thus have encountered Miss Verity Meadows at around 12:10.”
“What is your take on Mr. Grudge, Mug?”
“Well, sir. He’s not a pleasant sort of gentleman, but I can’t say as I altogether blame him for being so sour. It wasn’t his fault that his mother let Lord Cadblister settle her right smack in the middle of Cadblister Parva, and that neither made any secret about their affair- he was only a kid at the time. And from what I can make out, the village has treated him with contempt from the time he was a toddler.” Mug looked at Constable Wilkins. “Is that right?”
“Bad blood, sir.” Constable Wilkins spoke with certainty. “No one wanted any part of him.”
“Um,” said Mug, woodenly. “Not that I got any of this not-his-fault stuff from Mr. Grudge, mind. His motto is Never Complain and Never Explain.”
“That’s Disraeli’s motto, not his,” said Crowner.
“Well, then, he probably pinched it,” said Mug, unruffled by this interruption. The four constables in the lock-up watched this exchange as an audience watches, for example, a puppet show or a pantomime. “But my point is, I got all this Randall’s-early-life-and-hard-times stuff from Miss Meadows.”
“She’s a suffragette,” confided Wilkins to the constable on his right. He spoke with Dark Significance.
“So’s my mother,” said Mug. “Miss Meadows went up the lane to see the Viscount. They hadn’t any appointment, but she knew he was expected, and she was upset after the meeting. So, after returning to the Vicarage, getting ready for bed, getting into bed, and getting out of it and dressed again, she went up to talk to the Viscount. She calls him Gerald,” Mug said, with a twinkle. “I detect a bit of romance in that direction.”
“Do you now?” Asked Crowner. “I rather thought the sing-a-long I stumbled into in this very room yesterday morning rather looked like romance. But, in my interview with the Viscount, he indicated that he and Miss Meadows- who he calls Verity- were ‘practically engaged.'”
“Did he tell you about the snow-balls, sir?”
“He did. But go on about Miss Meadows.”
“Yes sir. Miss Meadows did not knock, because she didn’t have to. Gerald was outside when she got to the Hall, smoking a cigarette in the drive. She told him about the meeting, and started crying. He took her for a stroll, and, to cheer her up, he suggested that they see who could knock the most icicles down from the trees. She says they couldn’t see down the lane from where they were, but she is sure that no one could have come from the house and gone down the lane while they were there, as they were pelting the head of the lane with snowballs at the time. So it seems that the Hall end of the lane was under observation – and being shelled with snowballs- from around 12:20 to around 12:30, give or take. Then Gerald walked Miss Meadows home. They walked down the main drive, not the lane. That is all I got from her, sir.”
Crowner reflected for a moment, and then nodded. “My interview with the Viscount corroborates all that. I can only add a few facts to yours. The Viscount, who had meant to arrive at Cadblister Hall in time for dinner, instead arrived at a few minutes before midnight. He was detained in town by a friend of his, a man he calls Old Fathead. This friend had recently returned from somewhere in the Americas, where Old Fathead’s family has banking interests. Our Viscount came up the main drive of the house- in his car, which, with all that snow, must have been a touch perilous. He then went into the Hall, letting himself in with his key. He said hello to Lady Belinda- she puts his arrival at midnight, and says they talked for around ten minutes- and went outside again, to have a cigarette in the cold. Strange tastes, but Viscounts will be Viscounts. So we now have the Hall end of the lane under observation from 12:10 to 12:30, give or take. The rest of the Viscount’s story tallies with that of Miss Verity Meadows.” Crowner shrugged. “As for Lady Belinda-”
The station telephone rang.
Up at the Hall, the servants had been given a half-day, as the Crabtrees would not be in until the late afternoon, what with the Inquest and a grand tea at Colonel Crabbit’s that they would attend afterwards. All of the servants had therefore gone out.
Or, rather, all of the servants save one. Kate the kitchen maid had pretended to be ill, to allay the suspicions of Mrs. Doombane, who would otherwise not have permitted her to stay at the Hall alone. Once the Hall was empty, Kate had risen from her bed, pulled on a pair of thin cotton gloves, and began an investigation of her own.
She wasn’t, strictly speaking, investigating the murder. No, Kate was investigating the Hon. Percy Neville Bloater. Specifically, she wanted to know why he and Lord Cadblister had quarreled a few days before Lord Cadblister’s murder. Fannie the scullery maid had overheard part of this quarrel, and had told all the other servants about it. The other servants had told her to be quiet and stop putting herself forward. They had accused Fannie of dramatizing herself. In fact, they’d reacted in an entirely typical fashion- except for Kate. Kate had taken Fannie aside and asked for details.
But Fannie could only tell her that the two men had gone into Lord Cadblister’s study and that voices had been raised. Lord Cadblister had called the Hon. Percy “dishonest” and “a disgrace;” Percy had called his uncle an “old skinflint” and “a mean old miser.” That was all Fannie knew.
Kate wanted to know more. She wanted to find out enough to frighten Percy into leaving her alone. Therefore, as soon as the others had gone, Kate went to Lord Cadblister’s study- and to Lord Cadblister’s desk.
This desk was a beautiful old secretary, and Kate knew it was just stuffed with secret drawers. She knew this because, last night, after Lady Cadblister had finally finished tearing the library apart, Kate had crept in, to read up on secret compartments in antique desks.
Now Kate pushed and pulled and prodded, using her new expertise. There were indeed secret compartments in the desk. A hidden cabinet contained a bottle of what Kate suspected was immensely valuable brandy. The chamber underneath this hidden cabinet contained a photographic album that Kate put back in its place, blushing furiously, after a single glance at its contents – and a shake to make sure it didn’t contain any loose papers. There was a drawer full to bursting with the worst poetry Kate had ever read.
And then Kate found a second hidden drawer. It contained only two documents, and these were of fairly recent date, for the paper was pure white, with no dimming at the hands of yellowing time.
One document was Lord Cadblister’s Last Will and Testament, unsigned, and drawn up quite recently; the other was a cheque for a hundred pounds, from George Vivian Crabtree, Earl of Cadblister, to the Hon. Percy Neville Bloater. It was dated but a few days before Percy’s arrival. And Percy had endorsed the back of the cheque.
Now, Kate did not know very much about cheques, having very little personal experience with them. At Cadblister Hall, she was paid in cash; previous to that, she was paid in bed and board. But she knew enough about cheques to suspect this one. Most cheques did not, after they were endorsed, end up in secret drawers. She suspected that this cheque was a forgery, and that Lord Cadblister had found his nephew out.
But that was a job for Scotland Yard. If this cheque was a forgery, and if Lord Cadblister had summoned his nephew to the Hall to confront him about it, then it was, Kate considered, quite likely that the Hon. Percy was the murderer for whom the police were looking.
And that meant that Kate was not going to say to Percy, “You lay off me or I’ll Tell All. For I know about the cheque! Ha ha!” For, if Percy had killed Lord Cadblister on account of that cheque, then Percy would probably kill Kate if she tried anything of the sort. And, quite frankly, Kate did not want to be murdered. There were so many books she had not read yet.
Kate therefore closed up the desk, drew off her gloves, and coolly broke the most iron-clad of the many rules governing the conduct of servants at Cadblister Hall. She used the telephone.
“Cadblister Parva Police Station, please,” she said.