Authors: Ngaio Marsh
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #det_classic, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Police, #England, #Alleyn; Roderick (Fictitious character)
“Are you suggesting —? No,” Alleyn said, “you can’t be.”
“I was going to ask you, Super,” Fox said. “You don’t mean to say you think they may actually have beheaded the old chap then and there!”
“How could they!” Carey demanded angrily, as if Fox and Alleyn had themselves advanced this theory. “Ask yourself, Mr. Fox. The idea’s comical. Of course they didn’t. The thing is: when did they? If they did.”
“They?” Alleyn asked.
“Well, now, no. No. It was done, so the Doctor says, and so a chap can see for himself if he’s got the stomach to look, by one weapon with one stroke by one man.”
“What about their swords? I’ll see them, of course, but what are they like?”
“Straight. About two foot long. Wooden handle one end and a hole ’tother through which they stick a silly-looking bit of red cord.”
“Blunt as a backside, all but one.”
“Which one?” asked Fox.
“Ernie’s,” Alleyn said. “I’ll bet.”
“And you’re dead right, sir. Ernie’s it is and so sharp’s a razor still, never mind how he whiffled down the thistles.”
“So we are forced to ask ourselves if Ernie could have whiffled his old man’s head off?”
we answer ourselves, no, he danged well couldn’t of. For why? For because, after his old man dropped behind the stone, there was Ernie doing a comic act with the Betty: that is, Mr. Ralph Stayne, as I was telling you. Mr. Ralph, having taken up a collection, snatched Ernie’s sword and they had a sort of chase round the courtyard and in and out through the gaps in the back wall. Ernie didn’t get his sword back till Mr. Ralph give it him. After that, Dan Andersen did a turn on his own. He always does. You could tell it was Dan anyway on account of him being bowlegged. Then the Five Sons did another dance and that was when the Old Man should have risen up and didn’t and there we are.”
“What was the Hobby-Horse doing all this time?”
“Cavorting round chasing the maids. Off and on.”
“And this affair,” Fox said, “this man-woman-what-have-you-Betty, who was the clergyman’s son, he’d collared the sharp sword, had he?”
“Yes, Mr. Fox, he had. And was swiping it round and playing the goat with it.”
“Did he go near the stone?” Alleyn asked.
“Well — yes, I reckon he did. When Ernie was chasing him. No doubt of it. But further than that — well, it’s just not believable,” said Carey and added, “He must have given the sword back to Ernie because, later on, Ernie had got it again. There’s nothing at all on the sword but smears of sap from the plants Ernie swiped off. Which seems to show it hadn’t been wiped on anything.”
“Certainly,” said Alleyn. “Jolly well observed, Carey.”
Mr. Carey gave a faint simper.
“Did any of them look behind the stone after the old man had fallen down?” Alleyn asked.
“Mr. Ralph — that’s the Betty — was standing close up when he fell behind it and reckons he just slid down and lay. There’s a kind of hollow there, as you’ll see, and it was no doubt in shadow. Two of them came prancing back to the stone during the last dance — first Simmy-Dick and then Mr. Ralph — and they both think he was laying there then. Simmy-Dick couldn’t see very clear because his face is in the neck of the horse and the body of the thing hides any object that’s nearby on the ground. But he saw the whiteness of the Fool’s clothing in the hollow, he says. Mr. Ralph says he did too, without sort of paying much attention.”
“The head —?”
“They never noticed. They never noticed another thing till he was meant to resurrect and didn’t. Then Dan went to see what was wrong and called up his brothers. He says — it’s a funny sort of thing to say, but — he says he thought, at first, it was some kind of joke and someone had put a dummy there and the head had come off. But, of course,” Carey said, opening his extremely blue eyes very wide, “it was no such matter.”
There was a long silence. The fire crackled; in a distant part of the pub somebody turned up the volume of a wireless set and turned it down again.
“Well,” Alleyn said, “there’s the story and very neatly reported if I may say so, Carey. Let’s have a look at the place.”
The courtyard at Mardian Castle looked dismal in the thaw. The swept-up snow, running away into dirty water, was much trampled, the courtyard itself was greasy and the Mardian dolmen a lump of wet rock standing on two other lumps. Stone and mud glistened alike in sunlight that merely lent a kind of pallor to the day and an additional emphasis to the north wind. The latter whistled through the slits in the old walls with all the venom of the arrows they had originally been designed to accommodate. Eight burnt-out torches on stakes stood in a semi-circle roughly following that of the wall but set some twelve feet inside it. In the middle of this scene stood a police sergeant with his mackintosh collar turned up and his shoulders hunched. He was presented by Carey—“Sergeant Obby.”
Taking in the scene, Alleyn turned from the semi-circle of old wall to the hideous façade of the Victorian house. He found himself being stared at by a squarish wooden old lady behind a ground-floor window. A second lady, sandy and middle-aged, stood behind her.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“The Dame,” said Carey. “And Miss Mardian.”
“I suppose I ought to make a polite noise.”
“She’s not,” Carey muttered, “in a wonderful good mood today.”
“And Miss Mardian’s — well — er — well, she’s just not right smart, Mr. Alleyn.”
“No, sir. Not exactly. It may be,” Carey ventured, “on account of in-breeding, which is what’s been going on hot and strong in the Mardian family for a great time. Not that there’s anything like that about the Dame, mind. She’s ninety-four and a proper masterpiece.”
“I’d better try my luck. Here goes.”
He walked past the window, separated from the basilisk glare by two feet of air and a pane of glass. As he mounted the steps between dead braziers half full of wet ash, the door was opened by Dulcie.
Alleyn said, “Miss Mardian? I wonder if I may have two words with Dame Alice Mardian?”
“Oh, dear!” Dulcie said. “I don’t honestly know if you can. I expect I ought to remember who you are, oughtn’t I, but with so many new people in the county these days it’s a bit muddly. Ordinarily I’m sure Aunt Akky would love to see you. She adores visitors. But this morning she’s awfully upset and says she won’t talk to anybody but policemen.”
“I am a policeman.”
“Really? How very peculiar. You are sure,” Dulcie added, “that you are not just pretending to be one in order to find out about the Mardian Morris and all that?”
“Quite sure. Here’s my card.”
“Goodness! Well, I’ll ask Aunt Akky.”
As she forgot to shut the door Alleyn heard the conversation. “It’s a man who says he’s a policeman, Aunt Akky, and here’s his card. He’s a gent.”
“I won’t stomach these filthy ’breviations.”
“Sorry, Aunt Akky.”
“ ’Any case you’re talkin’ rot. Show him in.”
So Alleyn was admitted and found her staring at his card.
“ ’Mornin’ to yer,” said Dame Alice. “Sit down.”
He did so.
“This is a pretty kettle-of-fish,” she said. “Ain’t it?”
“What are you, may I ask? ’Tective?”
It wouldn’t have surprised him much if she’d asked if he were a Bow Street Runner.
“Yes,” he said. “A plain-clothes detective from Scotland Yard.”
“Superintendent?” she read, squinting at the card.
“Ha! Are you goin’ to be quick about this? Catch the feller?”
“I expect we shall.”
“What’d yer want to see me for?”
“To apologize for making a nuisance of myself, to say I hope you’ll put up with us and to ask you, at the most, six questions.”
She looked at him steadily over the top of her glasses.
“Blaze away,” she said at last.
“You sat on the steps there, last night during the performance.”
“What step exactly?”
“The top. So you had a pretty good view. Dame Alice, could William Andersen, after the mock killing, have left the courtyard without being seen?”
“Not under cover of the last dance of the Five Sons?”
“Not if he crawled out?”
“As he lay there could he have been struck without your noticing?”
“Could his body have been brought in and put behind the stone without the manoeuvre attracting your attention?”
He looked at Dulcie, who hovered uncertainly near the door. “You were with Dame Alice, Miss Mardian. Do you agree with what she says?”
“Oh, yes,” Dulcie said a little vaguely and added, “Rather!” with a misplaced show of enthusiasm.
“Was anyone else with you?”
“Sam,” Dulcie said in a hurry.
“Fat lot of good that is, Dulcie. She means the Rector, Sam Stayne, who’s my great-nephew-in-law. Bit of a milksop.”
“Right. Thank you so much. We’ll bother you as little as possible. It was kind of you to see me.”
Alleyn got up and made her a little bow. She held out her hand. “Hope you find,” she said as he shook it.
Dulcie, astonished, showed him out.
There were three chairs in the hall that looked as if they didn’t belong there. They had rugs safety-pinned over them. Alleyn asked Dulcie if these were the chairs they had sat on and, learning that they were, got her startled permission to take one of them out again.
He put it on the top step, sat in it and surveyed the courtyard. He was conscious that Dame Alice, at the drawing-room window, surveyed him.
From here, he could see over the top of the dolmen to within about two feet of its base and between its standing legs. An upturned box stood on the horizontal stone and three others, which he could just see, on the ground beyond and behind it. The distance from the dolmen to the rear archway in the old semi-circular wall — the archway that had served as an entrance and exit for the performers — was perhaps twenty-five feet. The other openings into the courtyard were provided at the extremities of the old wall by two further archways that joined it to the house. Each of these was about twenty feet distant from the dolmen.
There was, on the air, a tang of dead fire and, through the central archway at the back, Alleyn could see a patch of seared earth, damp now, but bearing the scar of heat.
Fox, who with Carey, Thompson, Bailey and the policeman was looking at the dolmen, glanced up at his chief.
“You have to come early,” he remarked, “to get the good seats.”
Alleyn grinned, replaced his chair in the hall and picked up a crumpled piece of damp paper. It was one of last night’s programmes. He read it through with interest, put it in his pocket and went down into the courtyard.
“It rained in the night, didn’t it, Carey?”
“Mortal hard. Started soon after the fatality. I covered up the stone and the place where he lay, but that was the best we could do.”
“And with a team of morris-men, if that’s what you call them, galumphing like baby elephants over the terrain there wouldn’t be much hope anyway. Let’s have a look, shall we, Obby?”
The sergeant removed the inverted box from the top of the dolmen. Alleyn examined the surface of the stone.
“Visible prints where Ernie stood on it,” he said. “Rubber soles. It had a thin coat of rime, I should think, at the time. Hullo! What’s this, Carey?”
He pointed a long finger at a small darkness in the grain of the stone. “Notice it? What is it?”
Before Carey could answer there was a vigorous tapping on the drawing-room window. Alleyn turned in time to see it being opened by Dulcie evidently under orders from her great-aunt, who, from within, leant forward in her chair, shouted, “If you want to know what that is, it’s blood,” and leant back again.
“How do you know?” Alleyn shouted in return. He had decided that his only hope with Dame Alice was to meet her on her own ground. “What blood?”
“Goose’s. One of mine. Head cut off yesterday afternoon and left on the stone.”
“You may well say so. Guess who did it.”
“Ernie?” Alleyn asked involuntarily.
“How yer know?”
“I guessed. Dame Alice, where’s the body?”
“In the pot.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Shut the window, Dulcie.”
Before Dulcie had succeeded in doing so, they heard Dame Alice say, “Ask that man to dinner. He’s got brains.”
“You’ve made a hit, Mr. Alleyn,” said Fox.
Carey said, “My oath!”
“Did you know about this decapitated bird?”
“First I heard of it. It’ll be one of that gang up on the hill there.”
“Near the bulls?” Fox asked sombrely.
“That’s right. You want to watch them geese, Mr. Fox,” the sergeant said, “they so savage as lions and tricksy as snakes. I’ve been minded myself, off and on this morning, to slaughter one and all.”
“I wonder,” Alleyn said, “if it
Ernie. Get a shot of the whole dolmen, will you, Thompson, and some details of the top surface.”
Sergeant Thompson moved in with his camera and Alleyn walked round to the far side of the dolmen.
“What,” he asked, “are these black stains all over the place? Tar?”
“That’s right, sir,” Obby said, “off of old ‘Crack’s’ skirts.”
Carey explained. “Good Lord!” Alleyn said mildly and turned to the area behind the dolmen.
The upturned boxes that they had used to cover the ground here were bigger. Alleyn and Fox lifted them carefully and stood away from the exposed area. It was a shallow depression into which had collected a certain amount of the fine gravel that had originally been spread over the courtyard. The depression lay at right angles to the dolmen. It was six feet long and shelved up to the level of the surrounding area. At the end farthest from the dolmen there was a dark viscous patch, about four inches in diameter, overlying a little drift of gravel. A further patch, larger, lay about a foot from it, nearer the dolmen and still in the hollow.