Lucas Dale always gets what he wants. And this time he wants another man’s fiancée: Susan Lenox. Never mind that she’s engaged to Bill Carrick, an up-and-coming architect without a farthing to his name. Cathleen O’Hara, Dale’s mousy social secretary, serves as the unwitting instrument of his plan, and a nasty blackmail scheme is set in motion. Soon, Susan has no choice but to break off her engagement and agree to marry Dale—until he’s found in his study with a bullet in his head.
Scotland Yard is called in, and before long, Inspector Ernest Lamb and Detective Frank Abbott have a suspect: Carrick. But as Lamb and Abbott dig deeper, they discover others with means, motive, and opportunity, including the victim’s penniless former wife who was handy with a gun, and his American business partner who wanted the money Dale owed him. No one has an alibi for the time of Dale’s demise. And someone else will die before the price of murder is paid.
Who Pays the Piper? is the 2nd book in the Ernest Lamb Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Who Pays the Piper?
An Ernest Lamb Mystery
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1940 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
"I always get what I want," said Lucas Dale. He stood with his back to the fire, a tall, well setup man in his easy forties, and smiled at his guests.
In the chair beside the fire Mrs. Mickleham, the Vicar's wife, was balancing rather unhandily the glass of sherry which she had not liked to refuse but did not really want to drink. She had the air of a hen confronted by a worm of some unknown species. She was not exactly a teetotaller, but she did not drink wine. Her expression became that of a hen with grave moral scruples.
Next to her, but farther from the fire, a square, dumpy woman with boot-button eyes and short grizzled hair. She wore the roughest of rough tweeds, shoes with square heels and soles half an inch thick, and ribbed hand-knitted stockings, all in a fierce shade of ginger. She was the wife of the thickset man with a thatch of white hair who was on the far side of the fire talking to the cheerful, rosy-faced Vicar. They were Sir John and Lady Vere, and they owned between them as much of the neighbourhood as did not belong by recent purchase to Lucas Dale.
Their daughter, Lydia Hammond, was sitting a little way off talking to Susan Lenox. They made a pretty contrast — Lydia small, dark, vivaciously pretty, with birdlike movements and rich carnation flush; and Susan with her fair, pearly skin where the colour came and went so readily, her dark blue eyes, and the hair like corn which is so ripe that it has begun to turn brown. There was gold in it still when she moved and the light caught the wave.
Lucas Dale was watching the gold. This was where Susan should be — here in the home where she had grown up, and not in the little house down the hill where she waited for a lover without a penny and nursed a fretful ailing aunt. This was Susan's place, in her drawing-room at King's Bourne, entertaining her guests, hostess to his host. But he would put better clothes on her than those shabby old blue tweeds, and give her a better ring, by heck, than the trumpery sapphire she had from Bill Carrick.
Lucas Dale did not have to formulate these thoughts. They were always present in his mind. When he looked at Susan as he was looking now, they merely became more insistent, and his desire for her more clamorous.
He looked away.
Cathleen O'Hara was coming from the door which led by a short length of passage to the library, a little, plain-faced thing with a shy charm for those who loved her. She was Lucas Dale's social secretary, and first cousin to Susan Lenox. Like Susan she had grown up in this house. She worked in it now, but she lived with her mother and Susan in the Little House down the hill. She came up the room now with a key-ring dangling from the little finger of her right hand, and between her two hands a shallow drawer or tray of some dark wood. The tray was lined with black velvet, and, disposed upon that flattering background, there were pearls, and pearls, and pearls.
Cathy walked very carefully indeed. People always made her feel rather nervous, and it would be quite dreadful if she were to knock against anyone or drop the tray. It was a great responsibility to have the handling of such valuable things. It frightened her to think how much they must be worth. She hadn't really liked having to take Mr. Dale's keys and get the pearls out of his safe, but she hadn't liked to say so. As she came into the room she heard him say in that very strong voice of his, "I always get what I want." Well, he had wanted money, and he had wanted King's Bourne, and he had wanted these pearls. If he wanted anything he would get it. ... Something looked out of her thoughts and frightened her so much that she did very nearly drop the tray. But not quite. She brought it carefully to Lucas Dale, and gave a small breath of relief as he lifted it from her hands.
"And the keys, Mr. Dale____" She held them out.
Lucas Dale smiled. He was a big, dark man, very well shaved, very well groomed. He wore a loose brown shooting-coat, not too new. He had well kept hands, but the nails were square and ugly, and the three middle fingers all of the same length. When he smiled he showed strong white teeth. He said in the kind voice which didn't frighten her,
"Keep them, Cathy. I shall want you to put the tray away when we've finished."
He set it down on a small walnut table. Lady Vere and Mrs. Mickleham both leaned forward, the one intent, the other fluttering. It was Mrs. Mickleham who said,
"Oh, Mr. Dale, what lovely pearls!"
Lucas Dale was looking at Susan. She hadn't moved, or turned her head, or stopped her talk. A rough, pleasurable anger possessed him. It was that way, was it? "All right then, we'll see." He lifted his voice and called across the room.
"Mrs. Hammond — don't you like pearls? Come along and look at mine."
He felt a dark amusement at the alacrity with which Lydia responded. She jumped up, pulling Susan with her.
"Don't give them all away till I come!" she cried and came running.
Susan Lenox followed slowly.
Dale was holding up a lovely milky string of perfectly matched pearls, and the Vicar was saying,
"Really, you know, they must be very valuable. I suppose you are well covered by insurance? I shouldn't care to have such valuable things in the house myself."
Lucas Dale laughed.
"I keep a loaded revolver, and take care that everyone knows it. Anyway what's the good of having a thing if you're going to keep it shut up in a bank? It might just as well be stolen and have done with it. As a matter of fact it would be stolen. I should be letting my own fear of a possible burglary rob me of my everyday enjoyment. Not that I look at these pretty things every day by any means. In fact I don't know when I had them out last, or when I shall have them out again. Perhaps not for months. But I like to feel I've got them under my hand."
"Pearls ought to be worn," said Lydia Hammond. She put out her hands with a quick, darting movement, took them, and looped them about her neck. They hung down over her honey-coloured jumper in two rows. Her colour glowed and her dark eyes sparkled. "Oh, I must see how I look!" she cried, and ran down the room to the tall Venice glass between the two end windows.
Sir John watched her go indulgently, but Lady Vere stiffened a little. "Lydia is so impulsive, and I'm sure neither her father nor I____" The thought just stirred, and was gone again.
Lydia gazed ecstatically at her own reflection. This room and the pearls suited each other. She could see the whole of it in the glass. The old ivory panelling, with electric candles in gilt sconces lighting it. The Adam mantelpiece. The dark polished floor with its beautiful Persian rugs. The long windows, curtained in a deep lovely shade of blue. The little group about the fire. "Mummy's getting stouter — she ought to slim. ... Cathy is exactly like a mouse. I can't think how she ever plucked up enough spirit to take a secretarial course, but what a good thing she did. ... Susan and Lucas Dale____Well, Bill Carrick or no Bill Carrick, they make a very good-looking couple. And this is Susan's room. If he had furnished it for her — perhaps he did. ... And she ought to be wearing the pearls — perhaps she will. She'd be quite breathtaking. Oh, bother Bill Carrick!"
Lydia's reflection stopped pleasing her. She came running back and pulled off the pearls as she came.
"Too much temptation, Mr. Dale. You'd better take them. But it does seem a shame that they shouldn't be worn."
"Oh, I hope my wife will wear them some day," said Lucas Dale.
Lydia had a way of saying the first thing that came into her head. She did it now.
"Oh, what a pity I'm married!"
Lady Vere said, "Lydia!" and Mrs. Mickleham said, "Lydia — dear!" Sir John Vere chuckled, and Lucas Dale threw back his head and laughed.
Lydia laughed too.
"It isn't fair to come dangling pearls like that at a poor sailor's wife. Freddy's an angel, and he'd give me the world if he'd got it, but he hasn't and he never will have, so it's Woolworths for me and for ever and ever, amen."
Mrs. Mickleham broke in eagerly.
"And they're really wonderful, are they not?" (Dear Lydia, how heedless — how very heedless! I don't wonder Lady Vere looks vexed. And what Mr. Dale can be thinking!) She felt extremely fluttered, but she pressed on. "Do you know, with all these wonderful imitations, I am not sure, Mr. Dale, that I would not rather be spared the anxiety of owning valuable pearls."
Sir John burst out laughing.
"I don't believe it, Mrs. Mickleham. The woman isn't born who can resist pearls — and did you ever hear of Jenny Baxter who refused the man before he axed her?"
Mrs. Mickleham looked down the long nose which so strongly resembled a hen's beak. Sir John might come of a very old family, but there were times when she considered that he forgot himself. That remark was in decidedly bad taste — like Lydia's. But Lydia was only heedless. Everyone knew that she was devoted to Freddy Hammond, but it was a pity to say things like that, especially when he had to be away so much at sea.
Sir John stopped laughing and addressed his host.
"Seriously, Dale, I wonder you're not afraid of having those things in the house. They're a temptation, that's what they are — and that's the Vicar's department. Hi, Vicar, you'll have to preach him a sermon about it next Sunday." He only half dropped his voice before adding — "make a nice change."
All this time Cathleen O'Hara had stood silently by the table which held the tray. Lydia pounced on her now.
"Come along, Cathy, let's be tempted together. What's your fancy? Me for the black pearls. Oh, Mr. Dale — how divine!"
"I shall count them before you go, Mrs. Hammond, so take care."
He still held the long string in his hand. He turned away with it now to Susan Lenox, who was standing behind Cathy.
"Will you put them on for a minute? I'd like to see what they look like. Mrs. Hammond is too dark for them really — pearls are for fair women. I'd like very much to see them on you, if you would be so good." Words and voice were formal.
Susan had no excuse for refusing. She had a feeling that the whole scene had been contrived for just this very end — to make her try on the pearls. And Lydia had made it impossible for her to refuse. A glow of anger stained her cheeks and brightened there as the thought went through her mind, "He'll think I'm blushing — they'll all think so." But her voice was cool and detached as she said,
"Oh, certainly, if you want me to. But I'm one of the people whom Sir John won't believe in — I don't really care for pearls." She held them up against her for a moment without fastening the clasp.
She became aware that they were all watching her — Mrs. Mickleham nervously, Lady Vere with her shallow stare, Sir John prodigiously amused, the Vicar kindly and unaware, Lydia's eyes dancing with mischief, Cathy with something scared about her, and Lucas Dale with the smouldering look which made her come near to hating him. They could all see how pale she turned.
She dropped her hands from her neck and gave him back the pearls.
"And I must say goodnight, Mr. Dale. Aunt Milly will be wanting me."
Lydia jumped up from where she had been kneeling by the tray.
"I'll walk down the hill with you, darling, and the parents can pick me up when they go. Daddy hasn't nearly finished drinking sherry yet, and it's so much cheaper for him not to drink his own these stony-broke days. Goodbye, Mr. Dale. I simply daren't stay near those pearls any longer, but I call you to witness they're all there, even the loose ones which would be so frightfully easy to pinch. Here, you'd better count them. If you go and lose them, I'm not going to have you say it's me. Freddy wouldn't like it — his family are all fearfully respectable. Come on — count them!"
Mrs. Mickleham said, "Lydia — dear!" Lucas Dale said, "It's all right, Mrs. Hammond, they're all there. You can leave the room without a stain on your character. And now, Cathy, I think you might put them away again. They don't come out more than once in a blue moon anyhow."CHAPTER 2
The proper way to reach the Little House was down half a mile of drive and along the road into Netherbourne village, but it was less than a quarter of a mile as the crow flies, and no more even without wings, if you went straight down past the three terraces and the tennis courts, through the vegetable garden, to the orchard which ran right down to Mrs. O'Hara's fence.
Mrs. O'Hara had been Millicent Bourne — one of the beautiful Bourne twins. She and her sister Laura were the talk of their first season. And then the war came. Millicent married a penniless Irishman who was killed in 1917, leaving her with a delicate baby and no income. Laura married John Lenox. He was killed in 1916, and Laura died the following year. Millicent O'Hara came back to her brother at King's Bourne. Everyone said that she would marry again, but she did not. She kept house very inefficiently for James, who was twenty years older than his young sister, and by degrees she lost her looks and her health and became a rather tiresome invalid. James Bourne was a confirmed bachelor. He was very glad to have poor Milly there, and to have her little girl and poor Laura's little girl. He became, in fact, extremely fond of the children, but being a most amiable, indolent and inconsequent-minded man, it never occurred to him to make any provision for them. When he died there was really nothing left. The estate had paid death-duties twice during the war, and everything that could be mortgaged was mortgaged. For the last couple of years things had been kept going with borrowed money. Lucas Dale stepped in and bought the place lock, stock and barrel. He was English, though he had made his great fortune in America, and he meant to settle in England and marry an English wife. He meant to marry Susan Lenox.
Mrs. O'Hara moved into the Little House with Susan and Cathy. She supposed they would get along somehow. There was about two hundred and fifty pounds a year. They couldn't afford a servant. One of the girls could look after her and the house, and the other could be earning something. Susan would have been the one to go out and earn, but it was no use wasting a training on her if she was going to marry Bill Carrick, so it was Cathy who went to stay with old Cousin Emma in London and took a three months secretarial course, the enterprise being financed by the sale of Mrs. O'Hara's Brussels flounce. She wept over the sacrifice at the time, and would probably never stop talking about it, because of course Cathy ought to have the lace for her wedding dress, but on the other hand they really couldn't live on two hundred and fifty a year, and how fortunate that Cathy should step straight into such an unexceptionable post. Mrs. O'Hara quite brightened when she talked it over with Mrs. Mickleham — "He treats her perfectly, like the nicest uncle. And she comes back to all her meals."
"But I thought — surely the Vicar was told — that Mr. Dale had a secretary already. He has been superintending all the alterations. A Mr. Phipson — yes, that's it — Mr. Montague Phipson. Quite a pleasant little man."
"Oh, yes, but he's the business secretary. Mr. Dale has a great many business interests. He doesn't want Cathy for that sort of thing. She is to do the flowers and — well, all the sort of things she and Susan used to do for my brother — only of course there will be far more entertaining now. He came to see me about it and was quite charming."
This was three months ago. Tonight Susan and Lydia took the garden way to the Little House. They came out on to the first of the terraces and saw the whole slope of the hill under a waning moon and a dappled sky, and the lights in the village far below.
Susan stood for a moment and looked. She felt Lydia's hand on her arm.
"I don't know how you can bear it. It isn't his — it's yours. It will always be yours."
"But I don't want it, Lydia — I never did. I've seen too much of trying to keep up a big place on a small income —" her soft laugh broke in — "or no income at all."
"I didn't mean that," said Lydia — "I didn't mean that at all. What about having the income to match the place? Wouldn't you like that?"
Susan laughed again.
"Bill wouldn't. He wants to build everything we live in. He says what's the good of being an architect if you don't. So we shall start in a three-roomed cottage and work up."
Lydia's eyes sparkled in the moonlight. She said crisply,
"And when do you start?"
They had been standing still, but Susan moved now. It was not until they reached the next terrace that she answered Lydia's question.
Excerpted from Who Pays the Piper? by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1940 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My first encounter with this author, and now I understand why she is often compared to A. Christie. The book is old style Brit lit. The murder is set in an English country house, with servants, and gossipy villagers. The pace is a bit slow but the writing is excellent. Good book for a rainy afternoon.