Authors: Roy Vickers
Friction, presumably, decided Crisp, since the wig had been removed by the murderer before the blow had been delivered. The plate itself had been puckered and driven inwards.
He bent low over the die-stamp, examining the edges of the base, which were clean. The new paint gleamed, but there was a chip of about an eighth of an inch on one side, which might have been made by impact on the silver plate on the skull itself. He picked it up by the lever, fitted a corner of the base to the puckerings of the silver plate.
“That's the weapon!” he said aloud. “And it only struck once. Well, Benscombe?”
“Blank on the registered parcel, sir. Can't get a thing out of Bessieâdisclaims responsibility, but is worried about having signed for it. I tried to calm her down, sirâ”
“I'll have a go,” said Crisp. “Ask her to come hereâdon't tell her.”
In mistaken self-defence Bessie launched a counterattack from the doorway.
“If its about that registered parcel, sir, all I want to know is what you say I ought to have done with it, having signed for it, as I've owned up, and put it where the old manâwhere Lord Watlingtonâwould be sure to see it as soon as he'd finished his sleepâmeaning the table in the hall.”
“Quite so!” said Crisp soothingly. “That was the proper thing to do.”
“Then I'm glad that's settled, sir.” The words were spoken at Benscombe. “Only, with the young gentleman asking me all those questions, I was beginning to wonder.”
“He doesn't think you pinched it, Bessieâhe isn't such a fool!”
smiled Crisp. “We have to find that parcel, and we hoped you'd be able to give us a hand.”
“Well, I'm sure I'll do all I can, sir, but I don't see how it'll help.” She related the known facts. “The last I saw of that parcel was when I took Mr. Querk his teaâreminds me, I forgot to take his tray away.”
“That was the last time you saw it, eh?”
Your saying that makes me think o' something. It
the last time, but it didn't ought to 've beenâthat is, not unless something woke him up and he took it himself, if you understand me.”
“I understand perfectly,” asserted Crisp. “You expected to see that parcel again. When?”
“When I came downstairs a bit before six, so as to be ready for those Harridge's men. But there wasn't neither of the parcels on the table then. The one that wasn't registered had gone, too. I'm sure of that, sir, as I'm standing here, because I remember what they looked like before they'd been moved. There was the unregistered one, heavy and standing up like. The registered one was flattish and felt as if it had cardboard under the paper.”
“Thank you very much, Bessie! You've helped us a lot,” said Crisp. “Let's see if I've got it right. You noticed both parcels on the hall table when you went upstairs at about four fifteen?”
“Yes, sir. And when I came down a bit before six, they'd both gone.”
“You heard what that girl said. That parcel must be accounted for.” Crisp spoke to Sanson, who made a note. Presently he turned to Benscombe.
“Come with me on a tour of the house. You can make a sketch plan so that we can locate everybody.”
In the century and a half of its existence the Manor House had suffered two fires and five barons of varying tastes and fortunes. The original staircase survived in a broad flight which failed to reach the first floor.
“This landing has been built in,” remarked Crisp. “So has this bow window.” From the landing there were but three stairs to the first floor.
The first bedroom, smaller than one would have expected, was evidently allotted to Ralph Cornboise. It was dingily but adequately furnished in satinwood, with an easy chair of old leather, which must have strayed some fifty years ago from a downstairs room. Crisp looked round, finding nothing to rivet his attention.
“This is part of a large room,” he said. “Done on the cheap, too!” He tapped the dividing wall, which resounded as if he had tapped a drum, revealing itself as match-boarding.
In the next room, the dinginess was even more pronounced. A cheap iron bedstead, a gimcrack wardrobe of stained deal and a bamboo dressing table with a spotted mirror.
On either side of the dressing table, the two men looked down on the terrace, obtaining a foreshortened view of Claudia, who was apparently consuming tea and sandwiches while her companion smoked.
“Miss Lofting and Cornboise working out how much they'll tell us, sir?” remarked Benscombe.
“If you stand here, you'll see it isn't Cornboise. It's an artist called Arthur Fenchurch. Ever heard of him?”
“No. A dinner guest, eh? He ought to have buzzed off when you told ' em to. Shall Iâ?”
“If we leave him alone, we're more likely to find out why he's hanging around.”
Crisp lingered, taking note of the layout of the garden. Nearly the whole five acres of it sprawled on the west side of the house. On the east side, only a narrow strip at the foot of the brick wall separated it from a side road.
He was about to move on, when he heard Ralph Cornboise entering the adjoining room. He motioned Benscombe to silence.
“Can't remember â¦ Can't remember!” It was a muttered undertone, but the words came distinctly through the matchboard partition. “Don't run your hands through your hair. All right dear, I forgot â¦ I can't remember. Can't remember.”
The sound of a male head being brushed became audibleâthen of the brushes being replacedâafter which Ralph left the room and went downstairs.
“Talks to himself without saying anything,” remarked Benscombe.
The tour of the house became perfunctory, Crisp's purpose being merely to absorb background detail. In the kitchen quarters he observed that there was no window on the west side, which was blinded by the stables. The last room they entered was the dining-room.
Alone at a table intended to seat twenty sat Andrew Querk, before him a large helping of lobster salad.
Querk was a large, fleshy man early middle age, who moved like a sleek cat and spoke in sonorous platitudes. His clothes, of the most expensive material, were cut with a conscious provincialism, so that one hardly needed to be informed that he was a mayor. In so far as he could be said to have a profession, he was a financial agent. He had qualified as a solicitor, but had never practised.
Early in life, he had discovered that the English mistrust an obviously clever man, but open their hearts to a fool who can be relied upon to make a fool of no one but himself. Like Watlington, though working along a different line, he had imposed upon himself a personality which in time acquired reality. He had sensed that the business man, secretly afraid of modern trends, looks backwards to the beginning of the century as the golden age. While adopting modern methods, he steeped his mentality in the mannerisms and thought-forms of fifty years ago, thereby subtly creating an atmosphere of stolid security. Except that he had made three unsuccessful attempts to marry, Querk could count himself a successful man in his own sphere.
Over the lobster salad, Querk beamed a welcome.
“Oh, pray come in!” he invited. “I feel that my poor old friend would have wished us to behave as normally as possible. The young people maintained that food would choke themâa somewhat hysterical attitude. You are under no strain, Colonel. Won't you join me while we have our talk. I will ring for Bessie.”
“No thanks. Don't let me disturb you. I'll see the other two first.”
“You will find them a charming couple,” said Querk. “And I have no need to emphasise to you, my dear Colonel, that if they should seem to you evasive on one or two matters of a purely personal nature, their reticence will have nothing whatever to do with the manner in which poor SamâI should say Lord Watlingtonâmet his death.”
Crisp spoke from the door.
“Perhaps you would be good enough to wait in this room, Mr. Querk, until I send you word.”
“Certainlyâby all means! As Mayor of Taunchester I have worked with our own Chief Constable. I am familiar with the routine, and I need not say I am wholly at your disposal, Colonel.”
Crisp thanked him as if this were a special concession. In the hall he spoke in an undertone to Benscombe.
“You've got to keep your temper with that chap, young man. If I catch you smacking his face, there'll be trouble. Keep him in there until I've seen the other two. Bring the girl in first, then put her in the drawing-room. Don't let her talk to Cornboise before I've seen him. Nor to Querk.”
In the morning-room, Inspector Sanson was gathering up his papers.
“I've assembled my requirements in that somewhat diminutive room they call the gunroom, behind the dining-room. I thought I would make that my office
“Right, Sanson. If Benscombe brings you anybody, keep 'em there until I give the all clear.”
“Miss Lofting, sir,” announced Benscombe.
In the matter of women, Crisp was not afraid of himself. He knew that there are uncharted cross-currents of sympathy between the sexes which are likely to upset the judgment. His formula was to let himself be impressed, then rub out the impression.
In something under a second, he made a preliminary assessment of Claudia. Her dress he saw as a wisp of an evening frock in a blue that was insistent when you looked at the frock but ingenious when you looked at the girl. A cloak that contrived to seem part of the frock. A physically attractive woman who was intelligently aware of her attractiveness.
From her style, he guessed that she was typical of her classâprobably ill-educated but well informed, shallow but well disciplined, loyal only to her own set and unscrupulous outside her own code, dignified and well mannered, but fundamentally tougher than any gun moll because she was sure of herself.
With the ghost of a bow, she acknowledged his position. Her eye ran over the exhibits on the table, stopped at the pearl-handled penknife.
“Your knife?” asked Crisp.
“Yes. I think I left it in the library.”
“When d' you think you left it there?”
“Some time during the afternoon. It must have been about five.”
Typical of her class. No evasion, no apologetic explanation. She might or might not know that Watlington had been killed between five and five thirty.
She turned to the one easy chair. Crisp watched her sit down, an act which defeats the majority of graceful women and makes them self-conscious. When Claudia sat down, Crisp knew that she must have served an apprenticeship at all the light gamesâtennis, squash and probably fencingâthat she took little or no alcohol and that she slept well. She had not even fussed with her dress, as most of them did. She could sit, too, without fidgetting. Her hands, slightly over-developed, were still.
“What was the knife being used for?”
Claudia smiled. “It will take hours this way, Colonel. Wouldn't it be better for me to recite my little piece first?”
“Much better,” he agreed. “Let's begin with your arrival.”
“A bit before that, if you don't mind. Ralphâthat's Cornboise, my fiancÃ©âdrove me up from my home in Wiltshire to meet his uncle, for the first time. Ralph was worried because he was expecting a stormy interview about his extravagance. He has spent an awful lotâbut that's because his uncle kept sending cheques and writing him nonsense about keeping up his position. Watlington had the gipsy fortune-teller's idea of the peerage. The point is, Ralph was in a state of hopeless nerviness. That explains the odd way we all behaved.”
“Allâincluding yourself?” Crisp gave her a cigarette and lit it for her.
“Including me! Lunch went off fairly well. Watlington was quite good company when he wasn't thinking about the peerage. Ralph was gloomy, so Querk and I had to laugh at all the jokes. After lunch we all trouped into the headmaster's study. There was a bit about Ralph's extravagance, but not much. Then we got back to the peerage
âfounding a family and all that. Watlington read us his Will. You've got it there on the table in that sealed envelope. Or haven't you?”
She seemed to have lost her way. The long summer day was fading. Crisp turned on the light.
“This may be the Will,” said Crisp. “We always avoid opening sealed documents if we can.”
She came out of her abstraction.
“Anyhow, the Will said that, provided Ralph married a suitable sort of woman, he'd get a million, apart from the trimmingsâwhich may be another million or so, for all I know. That was how the trouble started.”
Again she lapsed into silence.
“Trouble?” he prompted. “Not about the suitability of yourself as a wife, surely?”
“It was, though! Now, I might turn out a ghastly flop as a wife, but I
suitable by Watlington's standards, if by no one else's. He said something about modern girls being too broadminded about love affairs, meaning that I personally was once in love with another man, as Ralph knows.” She paused. “He had somehow got hold of some letters I had written to this man. That'll give you a sidelight on Watlington.”
“Very special letters?” asked Crisp.
“They seemed so, when I wrote them.” She smiled ruefully. “But if they were read aloud in court, I'm afraid they'd sound as awful as other people's do.”
“What became of those letters?”
“He kept them as evidence for the trustees that I was not âof unblemished social position'âas I think he called it in the Will.” She went on: “Watlington didn't say anything which was not true. But Ralph, being nervy, made a scene.
“When I had damped Ralph down, Watlington said he was sleepy and he would see us all at cocktail time. He made us watch while he put the Will in an envelope and sealed it with sealing wax. He sealed it with the family crest on his signet ring. Peerage