U is for Unwilling Investigator. Colonel Crabbit, Chief Constable of the county, should not touch this case with a barge pole- and well he knows it! But he’s in love with the widow of the murdered man, and can’t quite manage to keep away from the lady. This leads to some rather awkward situations.
“Colonel Crabbit,” said Sneakfork. And Colonel Crabbit strolled into the drawing room of Cadblister Hall.
“Lady Cadblister, me dear- thought I’d drop – hullo! That chap’s losin’ buckets of blood, isn’t he?”
Something clattered to the floor. Lady Belinda, who’d been hunched over the bleeding man, had risen to her feet in some confusion.
“Yes,” said Lady Cadblister, speaking as if from somewhere deep inside a nightmare. “Buckets.”
Crabbit crossed the room in a bound, moved Lady Cadblister out of his way with great gentleness, and crouched down next to the wounded man. He applied pressure to the wound. As he did so, his eyes travelled over the floor at random- and saw the knife, covered in blood, lying by the body. He stiffened.
“Stabbin’,” he remarked, eying the blade with reluctant realization. “Bad.”
Crowner and Mug found, with some difficulty, the narrow staircase that they’d ascended before.
“We do know more now, Mug. That must not be lost sight of,” said Crowner.
“To review. There was no body on the path at 12:15ish, when Miss Meadows walked it. At around- very approximately- 12:30, the body was in the lane, and young Alfie the Boots was crouching over it. What is the inference?”
“That the murder was committed between 12:15 and 12:30, sir. And that Alfie has not been what you might call frank with us, not by a long shot.”
“If the murder was committed between 12:15 and 12:30, who is eliminated?
Mug thought- and then whistled. “Everyone from Cadblister Hall, sir. That is, all the servants- excepting young Alfie, who was probably down in the village until after 12- as well as Lady Cadblister and Lady Belinda. That’s not certain, mind. They could have come to the lane through the woods. But they didn’t come from the Hall and go down the lane. On account of anyone coming from the house to the lane would have been seen by Miss Meadows and the Viscount, who were pelting the head of the lane with snowballs. And of course, the Viscount is right out of it, because he was with Miss Meadows, who I don’t think as things stand now would lie to protect him.” Mug paused, puzzled. “But sir! What on earth was Lord Cadblister doing from 11, when he left Rose Cottage, to 12:30, when he was murdered?”
“What indeed? Yes yes. Good question, Mug. Excellent question! Go on.”
“Well, sir. It is very suspicious, to my way of thinking, that Richard Crabtree was lurking in the woods at about the time of the crime. It wasn’t a night for strolling.”
“It was not.” They were at the bottom of the stairs. “Mug, do you know if Alfie has returned to his job?”
“Yes sir. Apparently Sneakfork had a word with him about Duty. He’s somewhere about the place now.”
“Go and find him. And get him to come across with the truth this time. Tell him,” and Crowner smiled diabolically, “it’s his last chance.”
“Will do, sir!” And Mug was gone. Crowner stood in reverie for a moment. An idea had come to him in his talk with Mug- but what had it been? He couldn’t quite recall. They’d missed something- overlooked something- made an assumption… No, it was gone. He started to make his way back to the drawing-room, thinking out the questions he would ask of Mr. Richard Crabtree when he got there.
Now all he had to do was find the drawing room. And that, Crowner realized, was going to present certain difficulties. Cadblister Hall was a very big place.
“Well, you’re a detective, aren’t you?” Inspector Crowner asked himself. “Time for some detecting.” Confidence renewed, he flung open a door at random- and found himself in the library- and more or less nose to nose with Kate, the kitchen maid.
“Yes sir?” Asked Kate. “Was there anything you wanted to ask me?”
“Well, as to that-” Crowner paused. The Idea was there. He had it. “Tell me,” he said, “all you can about Winter Sports at Cadblister Hall. Anyone go in for it?”
Kate un-burdened herself of all information she possessed concerning Winter Sports and Cadblister Hall. At one point during this process, her eyes began to shine with understanding. “Sir! That plank, sir!” Crowner nodded, his face grave.
“I very much fear so, Kate. Yes, I am afraid so.”
Colonel Crabbit, still applying pressure to the bleeding man’s wound, eyed his surroundings with mild surprise. “Secret passage, eh? Have a priest’s hole meself, but nothing like this. Not booby trapped or anythin’?” This last was asked with faint hope. Neither of the women replied, though Lady Belinda did let out a little hysterical laugh. “Well, well! Nevermind that now- thing is, stop the bleedin’. Veronica me dear, ring that bell for Sneakfork- tell him we need Doctor Brandwood.”
But Lady Cadblister did not move.
“The bell, woman! Ring it! Don’t want this chap to die, what?”
“Well, now.” Lady Cadblister spoke slowly and with deadly calm. “I rather suspect that he wanted to die. Don’t you?”
“You mean- man stabbed himself?” The Colonel was aghast- but he felt a sneaking relief as well. Idly, he glanced for the first time at the man’s pale, unconscious face. “Why, it’s that dashed American who shoved in on us at tea! What was an American doin’ crawlin’ around secret passages in Cadblister Hall?”
“He isn’t an American. He’s Richard Crabtree,” said Lady Cadblister. “I apprised the police of this fact- in his presence- no more than an hour ago.”
Lady Belinda started. “You mean- it’s true? This man is – my uncle? But- he was supposed to be dead. He was dead. Everyone knew that. He said he was Richard Crabtree, but I didn’t believe him.”
“Be quiet, child!” Lady Cadblister hissed this through suddenly clenched teeth. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. The shock has been too much for you, I suppose. Come and sit by me.”
Lady Belinda stepped over the wounded man and drifted towards her mother- but halfway across the room, she halted. It was almost as if she was afraid, thought the Colonel, as, with difficulty, he twisted about to look at the scene in the drawing room. Afraid – of her own mother! Bad!
“Crabtree?” The Colonel looked at the face again. “He could be. Yes, that nose- distinctive. Very! But- Richard. Well,” and his voice was grave. “If that’s so- he’d be better dead. Better a quiet suicide than hanging. I see that. But- well! Duty’s duty, what? Ring that bell, me dear!”
Lady Cadblister still did not move. She just sat there, smiling gently, taking no action.
“Bell!” Bellowed the Colonel. Lady Cadblister shook her head.
“I have my duty to do, too, Colonel,” she purred. “This man was my husband’s brother, after all.”
Lady Belinda snorted and made for the bell. The Countess’s hand shot out to grab her as she passed, but Belinda evaded nimbly and pulled at the bell rope for all she was worth.
“I don’t believe any of it,” said Lady Belinda defiantly. “And it isn’t sporting to just let the man die. He should have his chance, too.”
Sneakfork appeared. “Yes, my – oh my,” he said, observing the presence of a bleeding man lying in a secret passage that had never been properly dusted.
“Doctor Brandwood, Sneakfork!” The Colonel shouted. “At once!”
“He has just left the house, sir,” said Sneakfork. “He was in a hurry- I don’t know if we could intercept him. Yes, sir. I can see him. Half-way down the drive, he is.”
“Open the window,” said the Colonel, with confidence. He wasn’t, he knew, the brightest man in the world, or the strongest, or the bravest, or the handsomest. But he’d lay odds he was the loudest. He took in a lungful of air. Sneakfork opened the window.
“BRAAAAANNNNNDWOOOOOOOOOOODDDD!” Bellowed the Colonel.
“He appears,” said Sneakfork, “to be coming back, sir.”
“I say,” said a voice from the door. “Heard someone howlin’ for the doctor. Anything wrong?” And Viscount Diddums strolled into the room, smiling vaguely. And then he saw the body. “What ho!” He cried. “A body, what? I say- what?”
And Lady Belinda shouted with laughter and relief. “Oh, Gerald!” She cried ecstatically, “you are an ass!” And she ran to her brother and embraced him.
Mug was not a man who went in much for running. He had to do a certain amount of it in a professional way, criminals being what they were, but he’d never gotten really fond of it. He wasn’t getting any fonder of it now. Alfie was young, and he Knew The Terrain. And the instant he’d seen Mug, striding purposefully down the central hall of the rabbit-warren of the Cadblister Hall servants’ quarters, Alfie had started running. Mug was puffing and red-faced by the time he finally trapped the little rat in a dusty and distant corner of the wine-cellar.
“What’d you want to go and do that for?” Puffed Mug.
“I didn’t do it!” Alfie wailed.
“I never said you did, did I?”
“I knew as that old bat’d seen me,” Alfie muttered at the ground. “And I’d just heard as she was awake and talking- when I sees your ugly mug where it hadn’t ought to be, looking about for summat. A course I ran.”
“Oh, good!” Mug grinned at the young man, rather as a fatherly shark might smile at an unwary swimmer. “We’re going to get the truth this time, I can feel it.”
“Not saying nuffink,” Alfie said, glaring at his shoes.
“Oh, yes you are, my lad. Inspector Crowner says it’s your last chance.” And he waggled his eyebrows Significantly.
“I never killed him! It isn’t fair!” In his agitation, Alfie had shed ten years and every scrap of dignity he possessed. He was now, frankly, whining. Tears shone in his eyes. “I went to meeting in th’village, never thinking as His Lordship’d take it into his head to turn up. Me mam sees him come in, and she tells me to cut off quick afore he sees me and I lose me position. I cuts out of there accordingly and go to mam’s cottage. I had that spoon- Inspector Crowner promised me he’d turn a blind eye! It isn’t fair! It-”
“Stop that, now! A grown man carrying on like a kid- disgusting, I call it! And listen up, lad: your best chance – your last chance, too- is to tell me the truth now. Crowner still has that spoon, and it’s still got your fingerprints all over it. But he won’t do anything with it, unless you annoy him. Or me. You’re starting to annoy me now, with all this silly kid’s stuff. Just tell me what happened, and cut out the theatricals.”
“I’m not afraid of spoon- that’s trouble, but it’s not hanging-trouble,” said Alfie. “But you won’t believe me about finding the body.” He spoke now with the calm of despair.
“Just tell me the truth. No one thinks you killed His Lordship; we’ve got our own ideas as to who did that. But we can’t ever get him for it, if you keep telling us lies. And then we might have to arrest you for the murder, you know. A witness places you standing over the body in an agitated and suspicious manner. If you don’t give us something to think about- well!” And Mug shook his head sadly. “You’re for it.”
Alfie stared. “Fine,” he said. “Fine. I’m putting noose round my own neck, but here it is, and if I hang, may ye never have neither wife nor little’un.” And Alfie spat in a ritual manner onto the dirt floor. “Here ’tis, then. I were taking spoon back to Hall, so as to return it quiet-like. Me mam seen it in pocket, and she made a fuss like you wouldn’t believe. That took a power of time, and it were twenty after midnight when I start back for Hall. Ten minutes later, I were half-way up lane when the church-bell sounded and the corpse appeared before me.”
“You mean, when you first caught sight of it?”
“No I don’t. I mean, it appeared before me. It weren’t there- bell sounded- there it was! The air sort of shimmered, and there was corpse.” Alfie studied Mug’s face. “Knew you wouldn’t believe me,” he muttered. “But Christmas Eve be a powerful night for witchcraft.”
But Mug did believe him.
Doctor Brandwood was a man who knew his own mind.
“Sneakfork! Go get the least idiotic servant you can find and send him here to me. The rest of you- get out! Get out! Get out! Shoo!”
“Come on,” said the Colonel, rather grimly. “Study, I think. Must ask a couple of questions.”
Much pleased with himself, Inspector Crowner won through to the drawing room at last. He entered just as an agitated Sneakfork was leaving.
“Ah,” said Crowner. “Doctor Brandwood. And someone has stabbed Richard Crabtree. Also, Cadblister Hall has secret passages. Right.”
Doctor Brandwood spun round. “You’ll do,” he growled, “until Sneakfork brings me a decent substitute. Put pressure on that wound!”
And Crowner found himself obeying.
“Right,” growled the Colonel. “Sit!” The Countess, The Viscount, and Lady Belinda sat. “Questions,” the Colonel said. “Hrm.”
“I don’t see the need for many questions, really,” said the Countess. “Do you, my dear Colonel?”
Susan, Lady Cadblister’s maid, glided in. “My Lady-” she said- and paused in some confusion.
“What is it, girl? Speak up!”
“The sign is upon the window again, Your Ladyship,” said Susan, and glided out of the room. Lady Cadblister turned pale.
“Sign? Sign? What on earth?” The Colonel wanted to know.
“It is- of no importance. Pray go on.”
“Right. You-” he pointed at Belinda. “you were in that passage when he was stabbed, weren’t you?”
“Talked to Crabtree?”
“Crabtree?” Asked the Viscount. “His name’s Ermyntrude, isn’t it?” And he looked at his family in terrible puzzlement.
They gave the Viscount the latest news. Then they gave it to him again, slowly. Finally, he seemed to grasp the thing.
“Right,” he said, blinking as at a Sudden Illumination, “Herman T. Ermyntrude is Richard Crabtree. Right ho.” And then he looked almost intelligent. “Then- isn’t he your man, sir?”
“Hrrrrmmmm,” said the Colonel. “Not so fast, me boy! Go slow and you won’t make mistakes. Hrm.” He looked at Lady Belinda. “Tell me what happened in that secret passage.”
Belinda told him. “And he said, Colonel, that mother- shoved him in. And I want- well, I want to know what mother has to say.”
The Countess was staring into the shadows in the darkest part of the room.
Her eyes moved with difficulty to her daughter’s face. “What? Oh, oh. Yes. I see. No, dear, I didn’t shove him in. Don’t be silly. He-” she paused. “I turned to the window. I didn’t want to look at him. He was a murderer. I didn’t want to see him. He is a murderer. I turned away. There was a noise. When I turned back, I saw the panel sliding shut behind him. I didn’t know there was a passage. I tried to open it, to prevent him from escaping. He was escaping, you see. He was trying to escape. I couldn’t get the panel to open. I figured it out- and perhaps that was why he stabbed himself.” The Countess spoke with the simplicity of terror. Under her veil, her face seemed to be in constant motion. New and strange shapes seemed to move behind the lacy pattern.
“Hrm.” The Colonel eyed his lady-love with new doubt. She was in a Hell of a state, he couldn’t help noticing.
“I need to go,” said the Countess, rising.
Inspector Crowner, bloody, disheveled, dusty, and dangerous, came into the Study. “No you don’t, Countess,” he said. He looked around at the others in the room. “None of you,” he said, “are leaving this house until I say. Except,” he said, eying the Chief Constable with dislike, “you. You can go any time. The sooner the better.”
And Colonel Crabbit, outwardly protesting, but inwardly overflowing with gratitude, fled from Cadblister Hall with all speed.