Z is for Zebadiah Sneakfork. Sneakfork is the butler at Cadblister Hall. He does not like his first name to be generally known, as it is, in his opinion, Somewhat Lacking In Dignity.
The Faithful Retainer Says Goodbye
It was an hour later. All of the pursuers had been rounded up and corralled in the drawing room; the bodies had been brought up to the house. Since neither body was in any condition for formal viewing, Sneakfork had overseen their temporary interment in the wine cellar, and felt a vast relief as he locked the door on them. But he was not immune to Sentiment, and he’d known the Viscount since he was a baby.
“Goodnight, your Ladyship,” he whispered. “Goodnight, Master Gerald.”
And, dashing a tear from his eye, he went slowly up the cellar stairs, and made his stately way to the drawing room. The Proceedings had not, as yet, Re-Commenced, and Sneakfork took this opportunity for a little quiet Observation, with a view to reporting it later to Mrs. Doombane the house-keeper and other Personages.
In the drawing room, all was as it had been, with several important lacunae. The Countess and the Viscount were, obviously, Not Present. Lady Belinda sat now with Miss Bantree and Mrs. Merriweather, who were trying to Say The Right Thing to a girl so suddenly Bereft. She seemed, on the whole, to be taking it quietly; she looked tired and shocked, but as if a nightmare was finally at an end.
Also Not Present were Mr. Randall Grudge, Doctor Brandwood, and Verity Meadows. Mr. Grudge had been carried up to the sick-room by James and John, the footmen. Doctor Brandwood was seeing to the young man’s injuries; Miss Meadows was possibly offering the injured man other and more Domestic Comforts. Sneakfork was relieved to note that That Violet Teasdale, the journalist, had Taken Herself Off. Miss Bantree had presumably Sent Her Home, and not before time, either. There would be enough of a Scandal as it was. Kate the kitchen maid and Alfie the Boots were also no longer cluttering up the place; Sneakfork, who had felt that their presence was Not Required previously, had been firm on the point this time.
It took Sneakfork a moment to put his finger on the other Absentee. Ah, yes, that Mrs. Goodkind. She did not appear to be present. Presumably, she’d gone back to her cottage. Sneakfork did not like witches, because he couldn’t place them. They didn’t Fit anywhere in Sneakfork’s rigid social hierarchy. They were generally awful-looking and Common As Mud, and yet one could not Snub them, or tell them that if they wished admittance, they should present themselves at the tradesman’s entrance.
Mr. Herman T. Ermyntrude- that was, Sneakfork corrected himself, Richard Crabtree- and Aunt Theodolinda were still in their makeshift beds. Aunt Theodolinda looked as if she’d recently had a good nap; her eyes, bright and interested as a bird’s, darted about the room. Richard Crabtree (a fine gentleman, Sneakfork considered, from an excellent family, though his American Ways were a little odd), looked, by contrast, rather glum- and no wonder, with his sister-in-law and nephew lying dead in the wine cellar, and his brother so recently dead. Yes, Sneakfork thought, he had always thought well of the fellow, even when he came to the door of his familial home as a stranger. Sneakfork had a very good memory- if one defines a good memory as a memory that retains only that which is convenient.
The Vicar sat with the Colonel, and seemed to be offering the man some Spiritual Consolation. Sneakfork heard the Vicar say to the Colonel, “My dear man, she was really a ghastly woman, and her death is very fortunate for you. For I don’t quite see how else you could have avoided proposing to the lady. There’s always India, of course, but your constitution-” Sneakfork nodded gravely. Yes. The Vicar was offering Spiritual Consolation. All was well.
Sergeant Mug was In Consultation with Constable Wilkins. The London Expert, Sneakfork decided, Taking The Local Man Into His Confidence. Much To Be Learned On Both Sides. “Being out in the countryside, you don’t get to see many plays until they’re all moth-eaten and tired out, like. I know. I grew up in the country myself. But, Wilkins me boy, let me tell you-” Consultation, Sneakfork thought, firmly.
At this point, Crowner rose from his chair by the fire. He was looking, Sneakfork considered, indecently happy. Then again, perhaps it was as well that no-one would have to be hanged.
“Ahem,” said Inspector Crowner. He looked around the room, and his eyes glinted with mischief. “I don’t suppose any of you want me to explain? Murder is so Lowering,” he said as his eyes flickered over Sneakfork. “Let’s all forget about it.” And he made as if to leave the room.
There was an outcry. Crowner turned, affecting Surprise. “You mean,” he said, “you do want me to tell you all about it?”
He was told very firmly that that was exactly what was wanted.
“Right, then! First, I will call on Richard Crabtree to explain his own presence in Cadblister Parva. That’s something even I don’t know.”
Narrative Of Richard Crabtree
“Well,” said Crabtree, looking around the room shyly, “you see, I’ve made what you could call a pile- a substantial fortune- a mint of money- about a million bucks- over in the U.S.A. And, what with my son going off to Harvard and my daughters to Bryn Mawr, and my wife being kinda busy with charities, and my hair going gray, and all- well, I wanted to see the old place again. I’ve thought about it a lot, in the last thirty years. But- well, what with the old murder charge and all, it was gonna be tricky. I kept putting it off. And then I heard a rumor that the Crabtrees were bankrupt. I have managed, you see, to keep up with things over here- amazing, the kind of information people will give you free if they know you’ve got a million bucks in the bank. Anyway, I heard that the family was bankrupt, and that Cadblister Parva was mortgaged, and I felt I had a kind of responsibility. So I decided to come and sort of snoop round. I tried to make contact with the family, but-” Richard Crabtree’s mild eyes rested on Sneakfork- and it almost looked as if he winked- “-there were certain difficulties about a formal call, since I didn’t dare use my real name. Mr. Herman T. Ermyntrude was a real American, by the way, and a real distant cousin. I met him on the H.M.S. Miseryguts, though I didn’t tell him we were relations, for obvious reasons. But we did become good pals. When the ship started sinking, we were walking together on the deck. When he realized what was happening, I guess he went crazy. He took off all his clothes and jumped into the sea. He must have died when he hit the water, at that height. And there I was, standing and gaping after him, and there were his clothes piled up at my feet, and the case with all his papers just jutting out of a pocket. I took the papers, and then the ship went down. Next thing I knew, I was waking up in a New York hospital, and everyone was calling me Mr. Ermyntrude. Well, that was O.K. by me.” And he looked about the room, in some confusion. “But what was I saying?”
“You were telling us,” said Inspector Crowner, “why you came back to Cadblister Parva.”
“Oh, right! I wanted to give Lord Cadblister enough money to pay off the debt. But somehow, I never managed to meet up with him. And then I saw, from the bar at the Yeoman’s Arms, him going to that village meeting on Christmas Eve. Well, by then I’d heard a lot, and some of it was worrying. I decided I’d lurk in the woods along the lane and try to have a private chat when he was on his way home. But people kept coming up the lane, and I didn’t want to explain myself, you see? So I stepped into the woods- and, well- I got kinda turned around. I used to know those woods real well, but- that was thirty years ago. Anyway, I got lost. Eventually I located the village again and went to bed. I didn’t know my brother had been killed until Christmas Day, when I tried to see the family up here.” This time, Sneakfork noticed with a certain amount of mortification, the man definitely winked.
A Startling Revelation (Or, Rather, Two Of Them)
“Right. Thank you, Mr. Crabtree.” Crowner paused in thought. “Or do I call you,” he said, “Lord Cadblister?”
“What?” Said Sergeant Mug.
“Well, isn’t he?” Crowner demanded. “I don’t know much about these things, but I haven’t heard of any other legitimate male Crabtrees about the place. In fact- well, I don’t know what happens when you inherit a title, flee the country, sink into the ocean, get declared dead, and then rise up, thirty years later, dripping wet and simpering like that naked lady on the shell in that painting, and aren’t dead at all after all. If you follow me.”
“I,” said the Colonel, “don’t.”
Crowner Did Not Look At All Surprised to hear this. “Well, do you know of any other potential Lord Cadblisters?”
“Ah.” And now the Colonel turned to Mr. Crabtree, a considering look in his eye. “Yes,” he said. “Quite right, Crowner.” He pointed. “Lord Cadblister. You.”
“Oh,” said the man we will continue to call Mr. Crabtree, as he has an awful lot of names already, and we don’t trust ourselves not to Become Confused. He sounded dazed. “I hadn’t thought of that angle. Well!” And then he smiled. “I think that’s swell.”
“My dear fellow!” The Vicar beamed. “And I presume that you will pay off the mortgage on the village? Lovely, lovely. It really seems as if all is ending rather well. With certain tragic exceptions.” This last was, Sneakfork thought, added as a gesture to Lady Belinda.
“Now get on to the murders, dash it,” said the Colonel.
“First,” said Crowner, grandly, “I must ask Aunt Theodolinda to explain what she’s been doing living here under false pretenses for the last 30 years.”
This caused rather a Sensation. And then the old lady smiled, nodded, and explained.
Narrative of Aunt Theodolinda
“Yes. I’ve been wondering if anyone would ask me that. You are quite right, Inspector. I am no true Crabtree. Dear me, how dramatic that does sound, to be sure! But it is true, all the same.” She paused, as if puzzled about how to put the thing. “But you see, it wasn’t on purpose! Or, not at first.” She looked rather helpless, as if she had just realized the tallness of the tale she had to tell. “Thirty years ago,” she began presently, “when this man’s father” she indicated Mr. Crabtree in the next cot, “was murdered, I was very ill. The old Lord Cadblister was an amiable and casual sort of man, not very interested in maintaining rigid class distinctions. And since he was an elderly widower, and his sons were grown, he could run his household as he liked. I was the aunt of the cook of that time- dear Eliza, who now, I believe, is head cook at some grand hotel in London. Well, I came to stay with Eliza, and I met Lord Cadblister. We- didn’t exactly dislike each other. We, in fact-” and, incredibly, the old woman blushed like a girl “we were quite fond of each other. But – well, his Lordship didn’t care much for conventions, but others did, and it seemed simpler to explain my staying on in the house- explain, that is, to his Lordship’s relatives, and to visitors, for the servants knew exactly who I was, of course- if I was a cousin of his. So he called me Cousin Theodolinda, and-” and she smiled at Mr. Crabtree, “you, I think, first gave me the title of Aunt. And it was all very nice. You see,” and she now spoke with a kind of embarrassed pride that was really, Sneakfork considered, rather moving (as the mistress of a long-ago Lord Cadblister, the woman had a definite Status in his eyes), “I was an actress when I was young, and I always got aristocratic roles, though I’m sure I don’t know why-”
“It’s the nose,” said Sergeant Mug, expertly. “You have exactly the right nose for a stage Aristocrat.”
Aunt Theodolinda looked much pleased. “Why- why, thank you, young man. But what was I – oh yes. Well, I got rather good at ‘talking posh,’ you see. I was a shoo-in for the part of Aunt Theodolinda, Aristocratic Relation, from the first- and now I’m not sure I could talk any other way, even if I tried.”
“But I was telling you about being sick, thirty years ago, when Lord Cadblister- the then-Lord Cadblister- you might almost say my Lord Cadblister- was murdered. I was very ill indeed. I lay in a fever for a long time after the murder. Oh!” And she looked again at Mr. Richard Crabtree. “I don’t know if anyone has told you, but – I saw your brother kill your father.”
Richard Crabtree whistled. “No, ma’am they have not. But that sure is a weight off my mind. I keep thinking that Crowner’s just waiting for the right moment to clap the cuffs on me for my father’s murder. It was George, after all, then? Well, well. I kinda thought so. Yes sir! I did just think it might be like that. But- say! Why didn’t ya come across with this at the time?” And he looked at Aunt Theodolinda in mild reproach.
“Well may you ask! And I fear I do owe you an apology, at the very least! But, you see, I was in such a fever when I saw it happen- I went back to bed and forgot all about what I’d seen. I woke up, perhaps a month later, to find that my Lord was dead, that all the old servants had been replaced, that George Crabtree was now Lord Cadblister- and that everyone was still calling me Aunt Theodolinda.” She looked around the room, grimacing comically, to emphasize the strangeness of this. “Well, no-one seemed to think anything of my staying on. So, I stayed. At first, I thought that I’d be found out quite soon, but it kept not happening. Eventually, I almost forgot that I wasn’t really a member of the family. And for thirty years, I remembered nothing about the night of the murder. But when I woke from my coma, I remembered it like it was yesterday.”
Lady Belinda went to the old woman and took her gnarled hand. “Not a member of the family?” She said. “What rot! I hope you’ll allow me to keep calling you Aunt Theodolinda- won’t you?” And Aunt Theo patted the girl’s hand and smiled.
“Lady Belinda gets it bang on the nail,” said Mr. Crabtree. “And hey! If I really do come back in for the title and the Hall, I sure hope you’ll stay here.”
The old woman succumbed to happy tears, Quite Overcome.
Inspector Crowner Tells All
Sergeant Mug blew his nose loudly, Visibly Moved. Inspector Crowner scowled.
“Yes, yes, yes. Quite so. All very nice. But- the murder. Let’s get on, or we’ll be here all night.”
He was encouraged to get on just as rapidly as he liked. Everyone wanted to know what had, in fact, happened on That Fatal Night, or rather, on Those Fatal Nights.
“Christmas Eve,” Crowner began, with a certain dramatic intensity. “Lord Cadblister leaves Rose Cottage and begins his slow walk home. At some point on this walk, he encounters the Viscount, who has come from town with, perhaps, an inkling of the property in Argentina, and thus with some knowledge of the actual monetary resources of his father-”
“Inkling? How?” Growled the Colonel.
“The Viscount was, on Christmas Eve, celebrating the return of his friend, who he called Old Fathead. This Fathead had just returned to London from Abroad. Old Fathead’s family has ‘banking interests in the Americas’. Most people that I know, when they say ‘the Americas,’ are commonly referring neither to the United States nor to Canada, but to South or Central America. This is, I believe, because most of us know when we mean the United States, and we know when we mean Canada. We therefore say so. But when it comes to South America- well, we seem to go a bit vague. We’re never quite sure whether the place we mean is in South, not Central, America, and so we say, airily, ‘The Americas’ to avoid being caught out in error. I think that this Fathead got wind of the Argentina deal and told the Viscount about it that night, though Old Fathead, who has been questioned by some tolerably competent men in London at my suggestion, has denied this. He does not quite deny knowing about any Crabtree purchases of property in Argentina- he says that any information of that type that he may have is confidential, and he won’t say more.” Inspector Crowner shrugged. “But that doesn’t matter. Lord Cadblister was quite capable, it seems to me, of telling his son about the property himself, and then telling him that he was planning to leave it to Randall.”
“But- but Randall had said he wouldn’t go to Argentina,” said the Vicar, looking confused.
“Yes, but what you’re forgetting is, Lord Cadblister was a nasty, mean old man, with a positive hatred for his legitimate issue. Even if he did not plan to sign the will leaving Randall all of his personal wealth- which would include the Argentina holdings- he was quite capable of telling the Viscount that he planned to do so. He liked,” said Crowner, scowling yet more ferociously, “annoying people.”
“And,” Crowner continued, “the Viscount was annoyed. In fact, he was positively murderous. In fact, he positively murdered his father, I suspect in the driveway of Cadblister Hall. This was at a little after eleven- perhaps as late as 11:30. Then, he did something tolerably clever. He found an old plank and put his father’s body on it. He then hauled the corpse on the plank over to the woods at the top of the lane. He propped the body and the plank just at the brink of the hill, and arranged it such that its whole weight was inclined to slide down the hill, and only a long stick shoved into the snow in front of it kept it from doing so. He positioned this gruesome sled carefully. Remember, his skill with sleds! Remember, he could ensure his sister reached the bottom of an obstacle-laden hill without hitting anything! Well, on this occasion, he positioned his father to hit something.”
Sergeant Mug gave a great shout of comprehension. “That boulder in the lane! It hit that!”
“Yes, indeed. The Viscount positioned the thing very carefully, so that it would stop in the lane, a plausible place for the murder to have happened, and so that it would appear there at a time at which the Viscount himself had an alibi. He positioned this gruesome sled- and then covered the body up with snow. It would look like just another lump in a world of lumps. And then the Viscount drove his car the rest of the way to the garage and pretended to his sister that he had just then arrived.”
“We will never know what his original plan was for the next part. I suspect he would have encouraged Lady Belinda to come outside for a jolly stroll and a snowball-throwing contest. But he went outside to have a cigarette, and there was Miss Meadows, coming to see him. He got her to participate in the frivolous-seeming snowball-throwing contest- and at some point, one of his snowballs struck the stick, which was, by the way, probably quite visible, sticking up out of the snow, and the sled was released and slid down the hill. That was at just about 12:30. Alfie, who was coming up the lane at the time, actually saw the sled sliding towards him. Visibility was, however, poor, and the lad is a superstitious sort. He said that the body appeared, that the air shimmered. The body did appear- from above- and the air did shimmer- that is, the snow that had covered the body was coming off.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Merriweather, rather blankly. “Um.”
“Oh um yourself,” said Crowner, offensively. “The Viscount then went inside. I don’t, again, know who was supposed to find the body, but, once Aunt Theodolinda here stumbled in out of the snow, Lady Belinda, and the Viscount, were in attendance on her, and the Viscount could probably count on Lady Belinda calling in the doctor at some point that night. If she didn’t, he could suggest it. Do you see?”
“No,” said more or less everyone.
Crowner growled. “Right. Right! Let us look at it this way: when Miss Meadows came up the lane, there was no body. Yes?”
Sneakfork joined in and made confirmatory noises with the rest of the room.
“After Miss Meadows came up the lane, the Viscount was, more or less continually, in the presence of at least one other person until the body was found. When he was alone with the comatose Aunt Theodolinda, Lady Belinda was hovering by the front door, watching anxiously for the doctor’s arrival. So- it looked as if the Viscount could not have done the murder. Do you get it?”
The room made noises of comprehension.
“Good. Good! Moving on, then, to the day of the Inquest. That Inquest,” Crowner said, irritation getting the better of him, “was the most inept piece of nonsense-”
“Get on,” barked the Colonel.
“Right. Yes. The day of the inquest. Tea with the Colonel. And then- the Countess insists that our amiable murderer accompany her to Rose Cottage, for the purpose of evicting Miss Mad Grudge, which, as his father’s heir, he can do. But he does not, in fact, evict Miss Grudge. He went, reluctantly but compliantly, with his mother intending to go through with the eviction. But Miss Grudge revealed that she knew about the Argentina holdings- and at that point the Viscount tore the eviction notice in two and threw it in the fire. Odd, that. Was it sudden pity for the woman who had been his father’s mistress? Was it a spark of humanity? It was not. If Miss Grudge was evicted, she would leave town – at once, since the eviction had already been served, and Lady Cadblister intended to insist on her immediate departure. And then- she might tell anyone about the Argentina holdings, and she might go anywhere with this information that the Viscount wished to keep to himself. If it was known, the holdings would be sold, and the debt to the money-lenders paid. The Viscount wanted to keep it. He wanted either to liquidate it on the quiet or to go and himself live as a great man in the kingdom that his father had built for Randall. But this Miss Grudge showed him she knew all about the property- and so Miss Grudge had to die.”
“Really! That is too wicked!” Cried Mrs. Merriweather.
“Don’t be an ass, Grace,” said Miss Bantree. “People are very wicked, sometimes. Part of the package, what? Human nature. Complicated.”
The Colonel looked at Miss Bantree with a kindling of interest. Perhaps he was thinking that conversation with this woman would be an altogether snappier affair than it could ever have been with the Countess. Sneakfork had always rather thought that the Colonel would do better with Miss Bantree than with Her Ladyship. Perhaps… but Crowner was speaking again.
“I believe he meant to kill Miss Grudge that very night,” Crowner said. “And arranged to meet with her in Dead Man’s Clearing. He probably lured her there with vague promises of some monetary settlement, but he was planning to kill her. Only that night, Frank Valentine visited Mrs. Goodkind.”
The Vicar beamed. “Ha!” He said. “The widow’s weeds!”
“Yes, credit for this part goes to the Reverend Doctor Meadows. Frank called out to the Viscount, and the Viscount replied. The woman who was with the Viscount was inaudible, and Frank assumed that the woman in widow’s weeds with the Viscount was the Countess. But it was Mad Grudge under that veil.”
“Well, the Viscount realized that, if Miss Grudge was found dead the next day, Frank’s story might be examined closely, and that someone might realize that the Countess and Miss Grudge were in the circumstances almost identical in appearance. He therefore waited until the next night to murder her. He let himself in with his father’s key. He smothered her- so that the body found in the fire would not show any signs of having been murdered. Since he was no doctor, he couldn’t be quite sure she was dead, and that is why he put a wedge under her door, to prevent her from escaping the flames if she did come round. And then he set Rose Cottage on fire and fled.”
“And now for the attempts on the life of Richard Crabtree. You seem, by the way, to be a singularly difficult man to kill. Shipwrecks, stabbings, poison- all just slide off you, it seems.” This seemed almost to irritate Crowner.
Richard Crabtree smiled. “Sure,” he said. “I’m a lucky man.”
“Hm. Yes, you could look at it that way. Anyway, this is where the Countess comes in. She had, by this point, come to realize that it was her son who was murdering people left and right. Woman’s intuition, I wonder, or did her son confess? We will probably never know. But the Countess was determined to protect her son, and herself as well. When we came to ask her some searching questions, with a view to a possible arrest, she invited Mr. Herman T. Ermyntrude to come and visit the Hall. He came on the double, for he wanted to get to know his family. She then proceeded to rip his whiskers off and reveal that he was, in fact, Richard Crabtree, alleged murderer of thirty years ago, and an obvious candidate for the gallows for these murders, too. At least, so she thought. She thought that murderers murder, you see. If she gave us a man who’d done one murder, we’d think he’d done ’em all. Silly.” Crowner shook his head at this Folly.
“And then we were called out of the room. I said that neither of them was to leave the house, and, I suspect, this gave her the idea. She thought quickly, and acted quickly. If Richard Crabtree were to vanish now, she thought, we’d be sure he’d fled the country again, as he did thirty years ago, and that would be that. Case closed. So she shoved him into the secret passage. I think she then realized, after she had acted, that he might escape, or be found, before he died, and that therefore it would be best if he died at once. I then think she told her son what she’d done, and suggested to him that a quick stab in the back of Richard Crabtree would solve all of their problems. The Viscount slipped into the secret passage, probably at its other end, and stabbed. But he didn’t do a very good job. And the Countess, growing impatient, perhaps, or suspecting that her son might botch the job, opened the passage to see what was going on- and then Colonel Crabbit was shown into the room. Awkward.”
“Well, this must have been discouraging for the Countess, but she wasn’t beaten yet. She poisoned him- I don’t know what poison she used, but I have an idea where she may have gotten it- and hoped that he would die without speaking. If he did die, she was fairly sure that she could force the idea that he was our killer upon us, with her powerful personality and her influential position. She could certainly pressure the Colonel here, and he could have made things very tricky for us. Her line was that Richard Crabtree, knowing he was caught, stabbed himself when he realized that he could not escape via the secret passage. And if she’d stuck to that, maybe – just maybe- we would have been stymied. I rather doubt it, but stranger things have happened.” Crowner yawned and stretched. “And that,” he said, firmly, “is, I think, all. Mug! Let’s go to that Inn and get some sleep. Tomorrow, it’s back to London, and a whole lot of explaining to Assistant Commissioners and people how we managed to let our man get shot right under our noses.”
And, quite abruptly, they were gone. For a moment, total silence reigned in the drawing room. And then Richard Crabtree spoke.
“Sneakfork,” he said, tentatively, “I know I’m not officially in possession of this place yet, but I think- it would be only humane- brandy all round? Would that be suitable?”
Sneakfork smiled in an avuncular manner. “Yes, my Lord. Brandy would be quite suitable.” And he glided out of the room to fetch the needful.