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Authors: Roy Vickers

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At twenty past seven, piloted by young Benscombe, he turned through the scrolled gates of Watlington Lodge—a late eighteenth-century manor house, with five acres of garden, some dozen miles from London, which had belonged to the family with which Samuel Cornboise had successfully connected himself.

The house had been unoccupied for forty years. Arriving in England a month ago, Lord Watlington had moved straight in. The caretaker was still in residence. She had been supplemented by a temporary cook and two housemaids while he postponed the tricky business of engaging a domestic staff.

A short, semi-circular drive brought them into full view of the house, an undistinguished rectangular block, the rectangle broken on the west side by the stables, built on to the rear of the house—rococo stables of tortured design, including a chiming clock set in an irrelevant turret.

The garden—more grandiloquently, the home park—lay to the west of the house, from which it was screened by a tangle of yew hedges, clipped here and there into conventional shapes which had gradually become grotesque under years of inexpert maintenance.

As the car rounded the bend of the drive, young Benscombe's attention was caught by what he saw on the terrace.

“Good lord, sir! I believe it's a hoax!”

The calm of a hot summer evening hung over house and garden. On the terrace was a score or more of wicker armchairs, flanked by an outsize cocktail cabinet. Three of the chairs were occupied. Between two men—one young, the other middle-aged—Benscombe saw an attractive girl in a light evening cloak.

He stepped out of the car and hurried to the terrace.

“The Chief Constable is here,” he announced. He paused a moment for their reaction, noted that the girl put her hand on the young man's sleeve. The middle-aged man, Andrew Querk, beamed on him.

“We are only guests,” he explained. “Lord Watlington will be here in a moment. In the meantime, on behalf of our host—”

“We have had a telephone message that Lord Watlington has been murdered.”

“Upon my soul!” mouthed Querk. “The Chief Constable, too, you said! This is most serious. I can only suggest that there must be some confusion of names. I would hesitate to suspect a practical joke.”

In the meantime, the Chief Constable had entered the house by the front door, which was open. Bessie, the housemaid, was waiting in the hall to announce the guests.

“Will you please tell Lord Watlington that the Chief Constable of the county would like to see him.”

“Yes, sir. I expect he's still dressing.”

Bessie, who was willing but untrained in the niceties of her calling, scampered upstairs, to scamper down again.

“He must be in the library after all,” she puffed. She crossed the hall, tried the door of the library, knocked and rattled the handle.

“It's locked. You'll have to wait, sir, while I go round by the window and tell him—p'raps he's still asleep.”

“Don't bother,” said Crisp. “Does he generally lock himself in?”

“No, sir. He wouldn't need. No one ' ud dare go in while he was taking his nap.”

Crisp saw a waiter carrying a load of table silver to the dining-room.

“What exactly is going on here?”

“A dinner party, sir. Those waiters and cooks have come down from London, as there's only the caretaker and me and cook and another girl in the house. There's cocktails at seven thirty, and dinner at eight.”

“Right! Just carry on, will you. Don't take any notice of me.”

Benscombe had joined Crisp.

“Those three outside are guests. They expect Watlington in a few minutes,” he reported.

Crisp nodded. “Don't let anybody follow me.”

He went to the door of the library, bent to examine the lock. From one of the bulging pockets he took a small pair of double-action pincers, which gave him a firm grip on the protruding end of the key. He turned it and entered the library, closing the door behind him.

Watlington was sitting in the swivel chair, which had been swivelled some forty-five degrees, as if he had been turning towards the wall-safe when death overtook him.

That he was indeed dead was obvious from the face, the left side of which was contorted into a fantastic wink, while the right side was normal. The left hand was across the breast, the fingers and thumb bent at the joints so that the whole hand had a spiderlike appearance—a nightmare spider with a signet ring. By contrast, the right hand rested on the knee, relaxed—the natural position for the hand of a man who had dozed off in his chair. The left leg was bent at knee and ankle so that the toes alone touched the floor. The right leg was normally relaxed.

Crisp's eye travelled back to the face, which looked like the halves of two separate faces welded together by a maniac. Added was a certain gruesome rakishness, due, Crisp thought, to the fact that the scalp itself was awry—until he realised that he was staring at a wig, slightly displaced.

There was no obvious sign of external violence.

“Looks like some kind of seizure,” ran his thoughts. “Probably while he was asleep.”

All the same, he would have to proceed on the assumption of murder until the doctor had given a lead.

He took in the objects immediately surrounding the body. Long writing table: telephone: three upright chairs at the opposite side of the table, with three writing pads in front of them. A small pearl-handled penknife on one of the writing pads. The wall safe. On the mantelpiece a hand-operated die-stamp. Why on the mantelpiece instead of the writing table? Go into that later.

Mechanically, he ticked off the small detail of the objects. Watlington's writing pad at an angle, liberally scrawled with pencil, the pencil lying on the pad. The pencil was of ordinary pattern, except that it had a white enamelled barrel, with the South African maker's name impressed in red. Similar pencils lay beside each of the three blotting pads on the other side of the table—no, by the middle pad there was no pencil! Yet the middle pad, alone of the three, had been touched with a pencil—incomplete geometrical patterns—the handiwork of a ‘doodler.

Last, he observed the room itself. Three walls were lined with bookshelves, heavily curtained, in the Victorian style. There were no books behind the curtains. The furniture, like that of the hall, was not old but merely out-of-date. There was a single window frame with sash windows ten feet high and five feet wide, counterpoised so that they could be raised or lowered with a light movement of the wrist.

“The team is arriving, sir,” called Benscombe without entering the room. He added: “And the dinner party guests too!”

After a glance round the room, during which he noted that the window was open at the top only, Crisp returned to the doorway.

“Get a screen for this door,” he ordered Benscombe.

The team was pouring into the hall. They knew their work and needed no shepherding. But there was a small point to be cleared up at once.

“Do the key in the door first, and check with the finger prints of the deceased.”

Out came a powder spray. When the powder had settled:

“There's no print on the key, sir. There's a lot of scratches on the stub—the part that sticks out on the other side.”

So Watlington had not locked himself in. It was theoretically possible that some innocent person wearing gloves had done so. But it was extremely unlikely.

The scratches, Crisp reflected, had probably been made by himself. Nevertheless: “Wrap the key for microscopic examination,” he ordered.

He left the fingerprint man, the doctor, and the photographers to their work and went to the terrace. More than half the guests had arrived. Bright sunlight was streaming on the white shirt fronts of the men, making them look like foreigners at a wedding. They were clustered round Querk, questioning and even heckling him. The presence of the police in numbers had produced a variety of reactions, chief of which was the dread of being associated with a financier who had broken the law.

Most of the guests were well known in fashionable and sporting circles. In one way and another, they had been profitably entangled in Watlington's massive financial movements.

They had received invitations to dinner at short notice, couched in terms that were almost peremptory. Those who had previous engagements cancelled them. They felt for Watlington that gratitude which is a lively sense of favours to come.

They all turned as Crisp approached.

“It's the Chief Constable himself … That looks serious … What's it all about, Colonel?”

“I am sorry to tell you that Lord Watlington is dead,” said Crisp.

The collective gasp was broken by Claudia Lofting.

“Has he been murdered?”

“We don't know yet. I imagine that those who have been asked here to dinner will not care to stay. I would be obliged if you would kindly give your names to the constable at the door before you go. And please don't walk about the garden.”

Thank heaven it had nothing to do with the accounts! The guests, chilled by Crisp's method of kicking them out, began to drift back to their cars. Some of their chatter reached Crisp.

“They say he married in South Africa, but no one has ever seen her. Perhaps she was waiting behind the door with an assegai—or is it a tomahawk? What is a tomahawk?”

Then a deep, self-assured voice:

“It's either natural causes or murder. I happen to know it can't be suicide.”

Crisp swooped. The speaker was a distinguished looking man in the middle thirties. His face was long and thin: his eyes, large but deep set, were framed with thick, curving eyebrows. In contrast to the evening dress of the others, he was wearing baggy flannel trousers and a sports coat of somewhat elaborate cut; it was pleated, back and front, and had special side pockets, from one of which protruded the edge of a leather-bound sketch-book. On his left hand, unexpectedly, was a dun-coloured, cotton glove.

“How d'you know that?” asked Crisp.

The other looked Crisp up and down. He was unimpressed by the badges of rank, paid more attention to the bulging pockets.

“Because he told me he intended to make an announcement tonight about his nephew's engagement to Miss Lofting. And because he made an appointment to sit for me next Tuesday.” He added, with some surprise: “I say—don't you know who I am?”

Crisp admitted ignorance.

“As a matter of fact, I'm Arthur Fenchurch!”

“Thank you, Mr. Fenchurch,” said Crisp and lost interest.

While Crisp was talking to Fenchurch, Claudia sought Ralph Cornboise.

“More people are turning up,” she warned him. “I don't think we need bother to break it gently.”

The newspaper descriptions of Claudia in court, by emphasising her physicality and writing up every detail of her dress, contrived to suggest a type of mindless play-girl who would do most things for money, including murder if necessary.

Actually, her appearance did not justify the superlatives of the special reporters. She was a smallish woman, but so well proportioned that no one would have called her short. Her disciplined body gave her unusual poise and gracefulness—missed by the reporters. Her hair was dark, as were her wide-set eyes: her skin fair, so that she looked fragile, which she was not. Her features escaped the regularity demanded of the standard glamour girl. Her nose had the hint of a tilt, and her mouth was dynamic.

In sum, not a ravishing beauty but a good-looking girl with a physical individuality. From an artist's point of view, her weak spot was her hands, which were a shade too large and lacked femininity.

As Ralph showed no sign of taking action, she added: “Hadn't you better go and head them off?”

Ralph Cornboise, to look at, was any schoolgirl's ideal. He was tall and athletic, with crisp gold curls and long eyelashes, which concealed the slight prominence of his eyes. Claudia approved of his appearance, much as a woman approves of a man's clothes and with as little emotion. She had been drawn to him by that element in herself which she had not tried to understand—a desire to protect and sustain a neurotic whose nature needed hers. This desire had grown to a dominating passion.

“Very well!” He was reluctant. “If you think I ought to.”

“I'll join you in a minute.” Claudia raised her voice for the benefit of some laggards. “We're awfully sorry, everybody, but we're afraid you'll have to go.”

Crisp approached her.

“Are you hostess for Lord Watlington?” he asked.

“No. Not officially. I'm Miss Lofting. I'm engaged to his nephew—Mr. Cornboise. He and I and Mr. Querk—the one bowing people out over there—were asked to stay for the weekend. I must hurry and help Ralph—that is, Mr. Cornboise. He's a bit shaken.”

Crisp told Benscombe to find out all about the imported waiters and to get rid of them, too. “Have their names and addresses taken. And pass the word that those three—Miss Lofting and Cornboise and that fleshy chap who has just sat down over there—are not to leave the house until I give the word.”

Crisp went back to the house, taking note of the groundfloor rooms.

As you entered the house, through a lobby, the dining-room was on your right, the east side: behind it, the onetime ‘smoking room' and a second small room, which the caretaker called the gun-room.

Opposite the dining-room was the drawing-room: next to it, the library, then the morning-room.

Tredgold, the doctor, came out of the library and approached Crisp.

“Better take the morning-room, sir,” suggested Benscombe, who was passing Crisp's orders to the sergeant in charge of the hall. As was his duty, he followed Crisp and the doctor into the morning-room.

“It's murder right enough, Colonel—and that doesn't mean that I'm trespassing on your ground. A good many years ago, deceased had a trepanning operation. There was a silver plate set in the top of his skull. Over it he wore a wig. The plate was crumpled and driven in.”

BOOK: Murder of a Snob
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