Authors: Georgette Heyer
Why Shoot a Butler
The signpost was unhelpful. Some faint characters on one of its blistered arms informed the seeker after knowledge that Lumsden lay to the west, reached, presumably, at the end of a dubious-looking lane. The other arm indicated the direction of Pittingly, a place Mr. Amberley had never heard of. However, if Lumsden lay to the west, Upper Nettlefold ought to be found somewhere in the direction of the obscure fittingly. Mr. Amberley switched off his spot-lamp, and swung the car round, reflecting savagely that he should have known better than to have trusted to his cousin 1'elicity's enthusiastic but incomplete directions. If he had had the sense to follow the usual road he would have been at Greythorne by now. As it was, Felicity's "short way" had already made him late for dinner.
He drove on rather cautiously down a bumpy lane flanked by quickset hedges. Wreaths of autumn mist curled across the road and further exasperated him. He passed a road winding off to the left, but it looked unpromising, and he bore on towards Pittingly.
The lane twisted and turned its way through the Weald. There were apparently no houses on it, nor did Pittingly - a place towards which Mr. Amberley was fast developing an acute dislike - materialise. He glanced at his watch and swore gently. It was already some minutes after eight. He pressed his foot down on the accelerator and the long powerful Bentley shot forward, bounding over the rough surface in a way that was very bad for Mr. Amberley's temper.
Pittingly seemed to be destined to remain a mystery; no sign of any village greeted Mr. Amberley's rather hard grey eyes, but round a sharp bend in the lane a red taillight came into view.
As the Bentley drew closer its headlights, piercing the mist, picked out a motionless figure standing in the road beside the stationary car. The car, Mr. Amberley observed, was a closed Austin Seven. It was drawn up to the side of the road, its engine switched off, and only its side and tail-lights burning. He slackened speed and saw that the still figure in the road was not that of a man, as he had at first supposed, but of a female, dressed in a belted raincoat with a felt hat pulled low over her forehead.
Mr. Amberley brought his Bentley to a standstill alongside the little Austin and leaned across the vacant seat beside him. "Is anything wrong?" he said, not without a touch of impatience. Really, if on the top of having lost his way he was going to have to change a wheel or peer into the bowels of the Austin's engine, it would be the crowning annoyance.
The girl - he guessed rather than saw that she was quite young - did not move. She was standing by the off door of the Austin with her hands thrust into the pockets of her raincoat. "No, nothing," she said. Her voice was deep. He got the impression that something was wrong, but he had not the smallest desire to discover the cause of the underlying agitation in her curt words.
"'Then can you tell me if I'm on the right road for Greythorne?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said ungraciously.
A somewhat sardonic gleam shot into Mr. Amberley's eyes. "A stranger to these parts yourself, no doubt?"
She moved her head and he saw her face for a moment, a pale oval with a mouth he thought sulky. "Yes, I am. Practically. Anyway, I've never heard of Greythorne. Good night."
This was pointed enough, but Mr. Amberley ignored it. His own manners were, his family informed him, abrupt to the point of rudeness, and the girl's surliness rather pleased him. "Tax your brain a little further," he requested. "Do you know the way to Upper Nettlefold?"
The brim of her hat threw a shadow over her eyes, but he was sure that she glowered at him. "You ought to have taken a turning to the left about a mile back," she informed him.
"Damn!" said Mr. Amberley. "Thanks." He sat back in his seat and took out the clutch.
To turn the car in this narrow lane was not easy. He drove on till he was clear of the Austin and began his manoeuvres. After considerable trouble he got the Bentley round, its head-lamps illuminating the girl and the Austin in two brilliant shafts of light. As the car swung round she flinched, as though the sudden blaze of light startled her. Mr. Amberley saw her face, chalk-white, for a moment before she averted it.
Instead of straightening up the car he kept it stationary, his foot hard on the clutch, his hand mechanically grasping the gear-lever. The headlights were directed full into the smaller car and showed Mr. Amberley something queer. There was a small hole in the windscreen, with splinters radiating out from it in a star shape. He leaned forward over the wheel, staring.
"Who's in that car?" he said sharply.
The girl moved quickly, shutting the interior of the Austin from Mr. Amberley's keen scrutiny. "What has it got to do with you?" she said breathlessly. "I've told you the way to Upper Nettlefold. Why don't you go?
Mr. Amberley pushed the gear-lever into neutral and put on his brake. He got out of the car and strode towards the girl. Now that he was close to her he saw that she was good-looking, a fact that did not interest him, and exceedingly nervous, a fact that aroused all his suspicions.
"Very silent, your companion?" he said grimly. "Get away from that door."
She stood her ground, but she was obviously frightened. "Will you please go? You have no business to molest me in this fashion!"
His hand shot out and grasped her wrist. He jerked her somewhat roughly away from the door and peered in. A man was sitting in the driver's seat, curiously immobile. His head was sunk on his chest. He did not look up or speak.
The girl's hand shook in Mr. Amberley's hold, which had slowly tightened on it. The figure at the wheel did not move.
"Oh!" said Mr. Amberley. "I see."
"Let me go!" she said fiercely. "I - it - I didn't do it."
He retained his grasp on her wrist, but he was looking :it the dead man. The clothing, a dark lounge suit, was disarranged, as though someone had rifled the pockets; the striped shirt was stained with red, and a dark stain ran down the front of the waistcoat.
Mr. Amberley put out his free hand to touch the slack one inside the car. He did not appear to feel any repulsion. "Not cold," he said. "Well?"
"If you think I did it you're wrong," she said. "I found him like it. I tell you I wasn't even here!"
He ran his hand down over her coat, feeling for a possible weapon. She began to struggle, but found that she was quite powerless in his grip. His hand encountered something hard in the right pocket. Without ceremony he pulled out a small automatic.
She stood still. Hatred vibrated in her voice as she said: "If you take the trouble to inspect it you will find it's Fully loaded. The magazine holds seven. It isn't cocked."
"Are you in the habit of carrying loaded guns?" he inquired.
"That's my affair."
"Undoubtedly," he agreed, and lifting the gun sniffed gingerly at the end of the barrel. He let go her wrist and slipped out the magazine. As she had said, it held seven cartridges. Pulling back the breech, he satisfied himself that it was empty. Then he snapped the magazine home and handed the gun to the girl.
She took it in a somewhat unsteady clasp. "Thanks. Satisfied I didn't do it?"
"Quite satisfied that you didn't do it with that gun," he replied. "Probably you didn't do the actual shooting, but you know something about it."
"You're wrong. I don't know anything. He was like that when I found him."
"No - yes, I mean."
"Make up your mind which it is to be," he recommended.
"Damn you, leave me alone!" she flashed. "Can't you see I'm upset and don't know what I'm saying?"
His cool glance swept over her. "Since you put it like that; no, I can't. You seem to me remarkably selfpossessed. Come on, out with it! Was the man dead when you found him?"
She did not answer immediately, and it was plain that she was trying to think what was best to say. The fury went out of her face, leaving it cold and rather wary.
"No," she said at last; "I thought he was."
"What made you think he wasn't?"
"He said something," she replied sullenly. "Yes? What did he say?"
"I don't know. I didn't catch it."
"You're a bad liar," he commented. "I suppose it didn't occur to you to render a little first aid?"
"I tried to stop the bleeding." She unclenched her right hand and disclosed a handkerchief saturated with blood. "I saw it was no use. He died almost as soon as I got here."
"And you didn't think well of trying to stop my car to claim assistance?"
She bit her lip, shooting one of her sudden fiery glances at him. "What was the use? You'd only think I'd done it."
"A little cold-blooded, aren't you?" he suggested.
"You can think what you like," she told him. "lt makes difference to me."
"You're mistaken. What I think is likely to make a considerable difference to you. Come here a moment." He grasped her arm above the elbow and drew her towards the smaller car. "Don't stand in the light," he said irritably and once more bent to inspect the quiet form inside. "Did you search his pockets?"
She shuddered. "No."
"Someone did." He reached his hand in at the window and carefully slid it between the dead man's coat and body. "No notecase, no pocketbook." He withdrew his hand and again let the girl go. "Damn!" he said unemotionally and wiped the blood off his lingers.
The girl said: "I - I feel rather sick."
Mr. Amberley raised one eyebrow. "I'm not surprised," he said politely.
She sat down on the running-board of the car and put her head down on her knees. Mr. Amberley stood wiping his fingers on his handkerchief and frowning at her. Presently she sat up. "I'm all right now. What are you going to do?"
"Inform the police."
She looked up at him squarely. "About me?"
Her hands kneaded themselves together. She said bitterly: "If you think I did this why did you give me back my gun? I might easily shoot you too."
"I don't think it. But I should very much like to know what you were doing here at this hour and why you carry a gun."
She was silent. He said, after a moment's pause: "Not exactly communicative, are you?"
"Why should I be? You're not a policeman."
"Just as well for you I'm not. You'd better burn that handkerchief." He turned away towards his own car.
She got up, surprised and uncertain. "Are you - are you letting me go?" she asked, staring after him.
He opened the door of the Bentley. "I'm not a policeman," he reminded her over his shoulder.
"But - but why?" she persisted.
He got into his car and slammed the door. "If you did it," he informed her pleasantly, "you're such a damned little fool the police will precious soon find you out for themselves. Good night."
The car moved forward, was backed again a few feet, straightened, and driven away down the lane the way it had come.
The girl was left standing irresolutely beside the Austin. She watched the Bentley's tail-lamp disappear round the bend in the road and blinked rather dazedly.
She felt in her pocket for her torch and drew it out. Switching it on she turned once more to the car. The blood had stopped oozing some time ago and had congealed in the chill evening air. The girl directed her torch at the body and cautiously put her hand in at the open window and felt in the dead man's outer pockets. There was a cheap tobacco pouch in one, and a pipe; some matches in the other. She tried to insinuate her hand into his trousers pockets, but she could not do it without moving the body. She drew back with a shiver and glanced up and down the deserted lane.
The mist, though it was still patchy, was growing thicker. The girl gave her shoulders a shrug and turned away. Her torch, flashing over the ground at her feet, revealed her handkerchief lying where she had dropped it. She picked it up, all wet with blood as it was, and screwed it up in her hand.
The torchlight made the mist look like a blank wall ahead, but served to show where the ditch ran beside the lane. The girl began to walk back along the road in the direction of Pittingly. At the top of a slight rise the fog was no more than a wisp of white smoke, and a gap in the hedge, some few yards farther, was easily distinguishable. There was a stile and a footpath leading across the fields. She swung herself up and over and strode out briskly, eastward. The path led to another stile and on, cutting across a beechwood to more fields, and ahead, the twinkling lights of Upper Nettlefold.