The Loudwater Mystery - Edgar Jepson - ebook

The Loudwater Mystery ebook

Edgar Jepson



This novel was first published in 1920 and is along the lines of a classic whodunnit. Lord Loudwater is brash, short tempered and always bullying people. He was loved by none, feared by many and hated by all. When he is inexplicably found fatality stabbed with a letter opener, the list of suspects seems endless. Unfortunately for Detective Flexen, who is to investigate the case, Lord Loudwater was not a very agreeable sort of fellow and almost every person in his vicinity had a motive for the crime. Was it his young wife or her lover, his former fiancé or even one of the servants? If you like the old style crime novels where you are presented with a puzzle and have to try and work out who the killer is, then you should like this.

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Lord Loudwater was paying attention neither to his breakfast nor to the cat Melchisidec. Absorbed in a leader in The Times newspaper, now and again he tugged at his red-brown beard in order to quicken his comprehension of the weighty phrases of the leader-writer; now and again he made noises, chiefly with his nose, expressive of disgust. Lady Loudwater paid no attention to these noises. She did not even raise her eyes to her husband’s face. She ate her breakfast with a thoughtful air, her brow puckered by a faint frown.

She also paid no attention to her favourite, Melchisidec. Melchisidec, unduly excited by the smell of grilled sole, came to Lord Loudwater, rose on his hind legs, laid his paws on his trousers, and stuck some claws into his thigh. It was no more than gentle, arresting pricks; but the tender nobleman sprang from his chair with a short howl, kicked with futile violence a portion of the empty air which Melchisidec had just vacated, staggered, and nearly fell.

Lady Loudwater did not laugh; but she did cough.

Her husband, his face a furious crimson, glared at her with reddish eyes, and swore violently at her and the cat.

Lady Loudwater rose, her face flushed, her lips trembling, picked up Melchisidec, and walked out of the room. Lord Loudwater scowled at the closed door, sat down, and went on with his breakfast.

James Hutchings, the butler, came quietly into the room, took one of the smaller dishes from the sideboard and Lady Loudwater’s teapot from the table. He went quietly out of the room, pausing at the door to scowl at his master’s back. Lady Loudwater finished her breakfast in the sitting-room of her suite of rooms on the first floor. She was no longer inattentive to Melchisidec.

During her breakfast she put all consideration of her husband’s behaviour out of her mind. As she smoked a cigarette after breakfast she considered it for a little while. She often had to consider it. She came to the conclusion to which she had often come before: that she owed him nothing whatever. She came to the further conclusion that she detested him. She had far too good a brow not to be able to see a fact clearly. She wished more heartily than ever that she had never married him. It had been a grievous mistake; and it seemed likely to last a life-time–her life-time. The last five ancestors of her husband had lived to be eighty. His father would doubtless have lived to be eighty too, had he not broken his neck in the hunting-field at the age of fifty-four. On the other hand, none of the Quaintons, her own family, had reached the age of sixty. Lord Loudwater was thirty-five; she was twenty-two; he would therefore survive her by at least seven years. She would certainly be bowed down all her life under this grievous burden.

It was an odd calculation for a young married woman to make; but Lady Loudwater came of an uncommon family, which had produced more brilliant, irresponsible, and passably unscrupulous men than any other of the leading families in England. Her father had been one of them. She took after him. Moreover, Lord Loudwater would have induced odd reveries in any wife. He had been intolerable since the second week of their honeymoon. Wholly without power of self-restraint, the furious outbursts of his vile temper had been consistently revolting. She once more told herself that something would have to be done about it–not on the instant, however. At the moment there appeared to her to be months to do it in. She dropped her cigarette end into the ash-tray, and with it any further consideration of the manners and disposition of Lord Loudwater.

She lit another cigarette and let her thoughts turn to that far more appealing subject, Colonel Antony Grey. They turned to him readily and wholly. In less than three minutes she was seeing his face and hearing certain tones in his voice with amazing clearness. Once she looked at the clock impatiently. It was half-past ten. She would not see him till three–four and a half hours. It seemed a long while to her. However, she could go on thinking about him. She did.

While she considered her ill-tempered husband her eyes had been hard and almost shallow. While she considered Colonel Grey, they grew soft and deep. Her lips had been set and almost thin; now they grew most kissable.

Lord Loudwater finished his breakfast, the scowl on his face fading slowly to a frown. He lit a cigar and with a moody air went to his smoking-room. The criminal carelessness of the cat Melchisidec still rankled.

As he entered the room, half office and half smoking-room, Mr. Herbert Manley, his secretary, bade him good morning. Lord Loudwater returned his greeting with a scowl.

Mr. Herbert Manley had one of those faces which begin well and end badly. He had a fine forehead, lofty and broad, a well-cut, gently-curving-nose, a slack, thick-lipped mouth, always a little open, a heavy, animal jaw, and the chin of an eagle. His fine, black hair was thin on the temples. His moustache was thin and straggled. His black eyes were as good as his brow, intelligent, observant, and alert. It was plain that had his lips been thinner and his chin larger he would not have been the secretary of Lord Loudwater–or of any one else. He would have been a masterless man. The success of two one-act plays on the stage of the music-halls had given him the firm hope of one day becoming a masterless man as a successful dramatist. His post gave him the leisure to write plays. But for the fact that it brought him into such frequent contact with the Lord Loudwater it would have been a really pleasant post: the food was excellent; the wine was good; the library was passable; and the servants, with the exception of James Hutchings, liked and respected him. He had the art of making himself valued (at far more than his real worth, said his enemies), and his air of importance continuously impressed them.

With a patient air he began to discuss the morning’s letters, and ask for instructions. Lord Loudwater was, as often happened, uncommonly captious about the letters. He had not recovered from the shock the inconsiderate Melchisidec had given his nerves. The instructions he gave were somewhat muddled; and when Mr. Manley tried to get them clearer, his employer swore at him for an idiot. Mr. Manley persisted firmly through much abuse till he did get them clear. He had come to consider his employer’s furies an unfortunate weakness which had to be endured by the holder of the post he found so advantageous. He endured them with what stoicism he might.

Lord Loudwater in a bad temper always produced a strong impression of redness for a man whose colouring was merely red-brown. Owing to the fact that his fierce, protruding blue eyes were red-rimmed and somewhat bloodshot, in moments of emotion they shone with a curious red glint, and his florid face flushed a deeper red. In these moments Mr. Manley had a feeling that he was dealing with a bad-tempered red bull. His employer made very much the same impression on other people, but few of them had the impression of bullness so clear and so complete as did Mr. Manley. Lady Loudwater, on the other hand, felt always, whether her husband was ramping or quiet, that she was dealing with a bad-tempered bull.

Presently they came to the end of the letters. Lord Loudwater lit another cigar, and scowled thoughtfully. Mr. Manley gazed at his scowling face and wondered idly whether he would ever light on another human being whom he would detest so heartily as he detested his employer. He thought it indeed unlikely. Still, when he became a successful dramatist there might be an actor-manager–

Then Lord Loudwater said: “Did you tell Mrs. Truslove that after September her allowance would be reduced to three hundred a year?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Manley.

“What did she say?”

Mr. Manley hesitated; then he said diplomatically: “She did not seem to like it.”

“What did she say?” cried Lord Loudwater in a sudden, startling bellow, and his eyes shone red.

Mr. Manley winced and said quickly: “She said it was just like you.”

“Just like me? Hey? And what did she mean by that?” cried Lord Loudwater loudly and angrily.

Mr. Manley expressed utter ignorance by looking blank and shrugging his shoulders.

“The jade! She’s had six hundred a year for more than two years. Did she think it would go on for ever?” cried his employer.

“No,” said Mr. Manley.

“And why didn’t she think it would go on for ever? Hey?” said Lord Loudwater in a challenging tone.

“Because there wasn’t an actual deed of settlement,” said Mr. Manley.

“The ungrateful jade! I’ve a good mind to stop it altogether!” cried his employer.

Mr. Manley said nothing. His face was blank; it neither approved nor disapproved the suggestion.

Lord Loudwater scowled at him and said: “I expect she said she wished she’d never had anything to do with me.”

“No,” said Mr. Manley.

“I’ll bet that’s what she thinks,” growled Lord Loudwater.

Mr. Manley let the suggestion pass without comment. His face was blank.

“And what’s she going to do about it?” said Lord Loudwater in a tone of challenge.

“She’s going to see you about it.”

“I’m damned if she is!” cried Lord Loudwater hastily, in a much less assured tone.

Mr. Manley permitted a faint, sceptical smile to wreathe his lips.

“What are you grinning at? If you think she’ll gain anything by doing that, she won’t,” said Lord Loudwater, with a blustering truculence.

Mr. Manley wondered. Helena Truslove was a lady of considerable force of character. He suspected that if Lord Loudwater had ever been afraid of a fellow-creature, he must at times have been afraid of Helena Truslove. He fancied that now he was not nearly as fearless as he sounded. He did not say so.

His employer was silent, buried in scowling reflection. Mr. Manley gazed at him without any great intentness, and came to the conclusion that he did not merely detest him, he loathed him.

Presently he said: “There’s a cheque from Hanbury and Johnson for twelve thousand and forty-six pounds for the rubber shares your lordship sold. It wants endorsing.”

He handed the cheque across the table to Lord Loudwater. Lord Loudwater dipped his pen in the ink, transfixed a struggling bluebottle, and drew it out.

“Why the devil don’t you see that the ink is fresh?” he roared.

“It is fresh. The bluebottle must have just fallen into it,” said Mr. Manley in an unruffled tone.

Lord Loudwater cursed the bluebottle, restored it to the ink-pot, endorsed the cheque, and tossed it across the table to Mr. Manley.

“By the way,” said Mr. Manley, with some hesitation, “there’s another anonymous letter.”

“Why didn’t you burn it? I told you to burn ‘em all,” snapped his employer.

“This one is not about you. It’s about Hutchings,” said Mr. Manley in an explanatory tone.

“Hutchings? What about Hutchings?”

“You’d better read it,” said Mr. Manley, handing him the letter. “It seems to be from some spiteful woman.”

The letter was indeed written in female handwriting, and it accused the butler, wordily enough, of having received a commission from Lord Loudwater’s wine merchants on a purchase of fifty dozen of champagne which he had bought from them a month before. It further stated that he had received a like commission on many other such purchases.

Lord Loudwater read it, scowling, sprang up from his chair with his eyes protruding further than usual, and cried: “The scoundrel! The blackguard! I’ll teach him! I’ll gaol him!”

He dashed at the electric bell by the fireplace, set his thumb on it, and kept it there.

Holloway, the second footman, came running. The servants knew their master’s ring. They always ran to answer it, after some discussion as to which of them should go.

He entered and said: “Yes, m’lord?”

“Send that scoundrel Hutchings to me! Send him at once!” roared his master.

“Yes, m’lord,” said Holloway, and hurried away.

He found James Hutchings in his pantry, told him that their master wanted him, and added that he was in a tearing rage.

Hutchings, who never expected his sanguine and irascible master to be in any other mood, finished the paragraph of the article in the Daily Telegraph he was reading, put on his coat, and went to the study. His delay gave Lord Loudwater’s wrath full time to mature.

When the butler entered his master shook his fist at him and roared: “You scoundrel! You infernal scoundrel! You’ve been robbing me! You’ve been robbing me for years, you blackguard!”

James Hutchings met the charge with complete calm. He shook his head and said in a surly tone: “No; I haven’t done anything of the kind, m’lord.”

The flat denial infuriated his master yet more. He spluttered and was for a while incoherent. Then he became again articulate and said: “You have, you rogue! You took a commission–a secret commission on that fifty dozen of champagne I bought last month. You’ve been doing it for years.”

James Hutchings’ surly face was transformed. It grew malignant; his fierce, protruding, red-rimmed blue eyes sparkled balefully, and he flushed to a redness as deep as that of his master. He knew at once who had betrayed him, and he was furious–at the betrayal. At the same time, he was not greatly alarmed; he had never received a cheque from the wine merchants; all their payments to him had been in cash, and he had always cherished a warm contempt for his master.

“I haven’t,” he said fiercely. “And if I had it would be quite regular–only a perquisite.”

For the hundredth time Mr. Manley remarked the likeness between Lord Loudwater and his butler. They had the same fierce, protruding, red-rimmed blue eyes, the same narrow, low forehead, the same large ears. Hutchings’ hair was a darker brown than Lord Loudwater’s, and his lips were thinner. But Mr. Manley was sure that, had he worn a beard instead of whiskers, it would have been difficult for many people to be sure which was Lord Loudwater and which his butler.

Lord Loudwater again spluttered; then he roared: “A perquisite! What about the Corrupt Practices Act? It was passed for rogues like you! I’ll show you all about perquisites! You’ll find yourself in gaol inside of a month.”

“I shan’t. There isn’t a word of truth in it, or a scrap of evidence,” said Hutchings fiercely.

“Evidence? I’ll find evidence all right!” cried his master. “And if I don’t, I’ll, anyhow, discharge you without a character. I’ll get you one way or another, my fine fellow! I’ll teach you to rob me!”

“I haven’t robbed your lordship,” said Hutchings in a less surly tone.

He was much more moved by the threat of discharge than the threat of prosecution.

“I tell you you have. And you can clear out of this. I’ll wire to town at once for another butler–an honest butler. You’ll clear out the moment he comes. Pack up and be ready to go. And when you do go, I’ll give you twenty-four hours to clear out of the country before I put the police on your track,” cried Lord Loudwater.

Mr. Manley observed that it was exactly like him to take no risk, in spite of his fury, of any loss of comfort from the lack of a butler. The instinct of self-protection was indeed strong in him.

“Not a bit of it. You’ve told me to go, and I’m going at once–this very day. The police will find me at my father’s for the next fortnight,” said Hutchings with a sneer. “And when I go to London I’ll leave my address.”

“A lot of good your going to London will do you. I’ll see you never get another place in this country,” snarled Lord Loudwater.

Hutchings gave him a look of vindictive malignity so intense that it made Mr. Manley quite uncomfortable, turned, and went out of the room.

Lord Loudwater said: “I’ll teach the scoundrel to rob me! Write at once for a new butler.”

He took some lumps of sugar from a jar on the mantelpiece, and went through the door which opened into the library.

In the library he stopped and shouted back: “If Morton comes about the timber, I shall be in the stables.”

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