An Ozro Reade Mystery.


(Continued from Part 1.)

At once (Reade continued) I attempted to take in all the details of the scene. There were no signs of a struggle; the body had fallen in the middle of the floor, without the usual overturned chairs and broken crockery that accompany a murder in the pantry [see Murder in the Pantry, no. 128 in the Ozro Reade series]. Even the bloody cane was placed neatly parallel to the body.

A few moments later, Dr. Washing-Machine appeared on the scene.

“Let me examine the man,” he said. “I know you are the famous detective, but remember that I was a medical doctor before my useful invention placed me beyond the need of dealing with filthy sick people.”

He stooped beside the body and relayed his findings as he examined.

“It would appear that he has received thirty-one blows to the head from some sort of blunt instrument; his skull is smashed, and, as he has been dead for probably two or three hours, I must inform you that in my professional opinion his chances of recovery are very slim. From the shape and depth of the wounds, I should say that they were inflicted by some object having roughly the form of a cylinder, long in proportion to its width; such as, perhaps, a tenor recorder, or a column from a 1-to-24 scale model of the Parthenon, or an extremely large novelty pencil.”

“Or perhaps that bloody cane beside him,” I suggested.

“By Jove, you really are as sharp as they say. I never should have thought of that myself. Well, from the evidence before us, although I cannot entirely rule out natural causes, or the cane falling accidentally on his head thirty-one times, I should say that Lady Agrippina may possibly be correct in her assumption that this unfortunate man has been murdered.”

I straightened myself up and prepared to get to work. “In that event, Dr. Washing-Machine, week-end etiquette demands that, as the world-famous detective of the party, I should take on the case. Would you be willing to assist me?”

“Oh, I say! Really? I’d be honored, of course. But why me?”

“I need someone of respectable credentials but distinctly limited mental capacity, whose inevitable misinterpretations of the information we discover will serve to set my correct deductions in high relief, as it were.”

“Say no more! I’m in. Just tell me what to do.”

“The first thing to do, then, is to summon the local constabulary. It is essential that they should bumble about for a while and arrest the wrong suspect. In the interim, we must make sure no one leaves this house, not even any of the other servants, though we shall not interview them, and in fact this statement will be our only reminder of their existence for the rest of the night. Once we have made those arrangements, the two of us must interview the other guests one by one, so as to discover the embarrassing but ultimately irrelevant secrets they are hiding from us and from one another. It is an arduous process, but one that is absolutely essential to the conduct of my investigation; for even though I already know what happened and how, the laws of week-end etiquette strictly bind me to conceal that information until we have uncovered a certain number of apparent clues that will prove later on to be ‘red herrings,’ as we say in the detecting trade.”

“Right,” said Dr. Washing-Machine. “I’ll have the butler call for the—— oh, I suppose that won’t work very well, will it? Never mind. I shall attempt it myself. Assuming I do succeed in figuring out that infernal telephone contraption, whom shall we interview first?”

“I think it ought to be the privilege of the hostess to be interviewed first, don’t you?”

“Is that week-end etiquette as well?”

“I believe it can at least be deduced from the principles of week-end etiquette. You ring the constabulary; I shall arrange the library as our interviewing room.”

While Dr. Washing-Machine was gone, I procured a liberal supply of handkerchiefs against the probable outbreak of tears in several of the interviews; then I placed the chairs around the reading table, making sure that my own chair was at precisely the proper distance for leaning in dramatically when such histrionics were called for. In a few minutes, Dr. Washing-Machine returned with the announcement that a constable was on his way; though, as a bicycle was his only transportation, the condition of the roads and the distance from the village would prevent him from arriving earlier than half past one. “The telephone is actually a very simple affair once you figure out that you have to pick up that thing with the wire coming out of it before you start talking to it. I’m surprised they don’t have that printed on it somewhere.”

“I’m glad you succeeded,” I told him. “Now, remember, doctor, that your rôle in these interviews will be to belabor the obvious, to ask disorientingly obtuse questions, and to leap to obviously incorrect conclusions. If you would be so kind, would you ask Lady Agrippina to step in here please?”

“I say, this is terribly exciting! Would you like me to use the telephone again? Oh, but I suppose that’s best left for talking to people who are outside the house. Well, I’ll be right back in half a shake.”

It was closer to three quarters of a shake, but soon Dr. Washing-Machine had returned with our exceptionally lovely hostess, who sat opposite us at the reading table and immediately took advantage of the supply of handkerchiefs I had laid in.

“First of all,” I said with a calculated air of sympathy, “let me express my condolences on your loss. It must be very difficult for you.”

“Yes—yes, it is.” She blew her nose loudly. “Eames was more than a butler to me. He was family. The kind of family you never invite to dinner and never give a birthday present and whose first name you don’t actually know, but certainly family.”

“Like a first cousin twice removed who always shows up Thursday afternoons and sits in the corner of the front parlor reading Upper Middle Class Romance Monthly but never says much of anything,” Dr. Washing-Machine volunteered.

“I shall be brief, then,” I continued. “In order to establish the facts of the case, I should like to have you tell me, in as much detail as you can remember, exactly what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time you discovered Eames in the pantry.”

“There’s very little to tell,” Lady Agrippina responded. “I went up to the sewing room to work, and it was—”

“Just a moment,” I interrupted. “Pardon me for inquiring, but exactly what sort of work were you doing?”

“It’s just a little hobby of mine. I’ve been building a model of the Parthenon at 1:24 scale. I’m just working on the columns right now.”

“I see. And how long were you up there in the sewing room?”

“Till just about midnight. I stayed in the sewing room the whole time, and quite definitely did not pay a clandestine visit to Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier’s room. I was so involved in my work that the time took me by surprise. When I saw that the clock was about to strike twelve, I decided to get myself something to eat before going to bed. And that was when—”

Here she trailed off, dabbing her eye with the handkerchief.

“Yes, of course,” I said sympathetically. “So you had no contact with Eames between the time you sent him to clear the dinner things and the time you discovered his body?”

“None at all.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine said after Lady Agrippina had left the room, “she was in the sewing-room when the murder occurred. Clearly she had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless she’s lying,” I remarked.

“Good lord! I never thought of that at all! My word, Reade, you do have a steel-trap mind. Well, what shall we do now?”

“Would you mind asking Mr. Ramshackle to step in here, please?”

Elbert Ramshackle entered wearing a mauve silk dressing-gown over bright yellow silk pajamas. “Murder,” he said as he sat in his chair, “is like a violin. It must be tuned regularly, or it—or it— no, hang it, that’s not going anywhere, is it?”

“I shall be brief,” I told him. “I should like a complete account of where you were and what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time of the discovery of the body.”

“Well, there is little to tell. Abhorring confrontations, which in mundane life are invariably disappointing from an aesthetic point of view when measured against the French dramas of the confrontationalist school, I retired quickly to my room, where I spent a few hours learning the tenor-recorder part in a motet a few of us will be performing at the annual soirée of the Aesthetic Society.”

“I see. And you did not leave your room during that time?”

“Not for an instant. The music is intricate and difficult, and required my complete attention for several hours. There was no time for me, for example, to tiptoe down the hall to Louise-Claude’s room—I mean Mme de Fronsac’s room. Music is like a—”

“So you saw nothing of Eames after he left us to put away the dinner things?”

“Nothing whatsoever.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine remarked after Ramshackle had left the room, “he was in his room the whole time. Clearly he had nothing to do with the murder.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I pointed out.

“Good lord! There you go again! My word, Reade, what I’d give to have a mind like yours!”

“Could you ask Sir Sigismond to step in next?”

Sir Sigismond entered reluctantly and refused to sit. “I have no intention of remaining long enough to make sitting worth my while,” he explained.

“I shall be brief, then. After you left us in the hall at about seven this evening, you expressed your intention to repair to the pantry for cold meat. Did you go to the pantry then?”

“I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would fail to reach his destination if he set out for the pantry. I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would set out for the pantry and end up in the upstairs maid’s room instead. Well, let me inform you that I am not. I reached the pantry as I intended to do, as I allowed nothing, not even the flashing dark eyes and ruby lips and perfect alabaster skin of Henriette the upstairs maid, to distract me from my intention.”

“And did you notice anything unusual when you were in the pantry?”

“Nothing but the blasted inconvenience of having to step over a corpse.”

Dr. Washing-Machine interrupted. “But I say, Prattle, you mean the dead body was already in there when you went in?”

“Yes, and it was a dashed nuisance. Had to be careful not to get his filthy blood on my shoes.”

“But for heaven’s sake, man, why didn’t you tell someone?”

“Tell someone what? It was just a servant. There’s nothing remarkable about it. Butlers die all the time. More often than not, in my experience. He wasn’t even a particularly good one. Expected me to get my own arms out of the sleeves when my coat was absolutely soaked. Why should I go out of my way to deal with a servant’s personal problems? If he’s been murdered, that’s his funeral, as that detestable music-hall screecher from the States would say. Bad enough that I had to step around the rotter to get my roast beef.”

“Well,” said Dr. Washing-Machine after Sir Sigismond had left the room, “the body was already there when he went into the pantry. Clearly he had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I suggested.

“You amaze me, Reade! I really ought to have thought of that.”

We had time for only two more interviews, and they followed a similar pattern. Professor Creak had definitely not left his room to dally with any American singers or anything like that, because he was too busy trying to write a treatise on the construction of glasshouses for tropical fruit with a giant novelty pencil that had been a gift from the Accounting Division of the Associated Fruit Vendors of the United Kingdom. Miss Warble had been alone in her room all evening, with no visitors whatsoever, and had certainly not eaten any mangoes in a lascivious manner. By the time we were finished with her, it was nearly half past one.

“Are all the guests still waiting in the hall?” I asked Dr. Washing-Machine.

“Everyone is accounted for,” he replied.

“Very good. The clock says half-past one,” I continued, “so I expect the constable will be here soon.”

“Unless the clock is lying,” Dr. Washing-Machine offered helpfully.

But at that very moment there was a pounding at the door, which, in the absence of Eames, Lady Agrippina opened herself.

“What’s hall this habout murder?” demanded the soaking wet constable on the other side of the door.

“I’m afraid my butler Eames has been murdered,” Lady Agrippina explained.

“Right,” the constable answered. “Did ’e ’ave hany motive?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, wait—hit’s the murderer what ’as the motive, ham I right? Not the victim. Well, then, Hi shall ’ave to hask heveryone hin the ’ouse to hassemble ’ere hin the ’all.”

“I have taken the liberty of assembling them already,” I explained.

“Right! Your name, sir?”

“Ozro Reade, world-famous detective.”

“Right. Well, Hi ’ave a hespecially ’ard duty to do, but Hi ’ave to do it. Hi must hask the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman from this party to step forward, please.”

Lady Agrippina, Miss Warble, and Mme de Fronsac all stepped forward.

“Right,” said the constable. “Well, hit’s not standard procedure to harrest three hinnocent suspects hat once, so Hi’ll ’ave to start from the left. Lady Hagrippina Pinchbeck, Hi harrest you for the murder hof Heames, no known Christian name, formerly hin your hemploy has butler.”

“I say, constable, is that really necessary?” Dr. Washing-Machine asked.

“Hit his habsolutely necessary for me to harrest the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman hin the party, yes, sir.”

“No, I mean that thing with the aitches, where you drop them where they’re wanted and stick them in where they’re not wanted.”

“Hi must do hit, Hi’m hafraid. Section 416, Constabulary Code: ‘Hall constables, hin speaking with the general public, must drop their haitches’; furthermore, Section 417, ‘Hin dropping ’is haitches, heach constable must remember to compensate by hadding haitches hat the fronts hof words what begin with hay, hee, hi, ho (hexcept for one or once), hor yu, when hit his pronounced without the consonantal Y sound.’ Hi’m honly doing my duty, sir.”

“I see,” Dr. Washing-Machine replied. “Well, it seems like a bally load of effort for you, but a chap’s got to do his duty, I suppose. What about Y?”

“Hi beg your pardon?”

“You know, Y, sometimes a vowel, like Ygg­drasil, Ypsilanti, and so on. How do your regu­lations address that issue?”

“Well, hum… herr… That’ll be just habout henough hout hof you! Now then, Lady Hagrippina, you will haccompany me.”

“That will not be necessary, constable,” I assured him. “Since you have seen fit to arrest our beautiful and innocent hostess, week-end etiquette now permits me to solve the mystery forthwith. As the guests are all gathered here together, I shall do it in the style approved by the foremost authorities on etiquette: namely, by means of an elaborate recapitulation of the whereabouts, activities, and motivations of every member of this party. And I shall do it so thoroughly,” I added, “that it will necessitate a third installment of this story.”

Concluded in Part 3.